Tuesday, 1 September 2009

You know, I don't think I want to even touch the part where he suggests that Banksy should have been murdered at birth.

I've posted here before (and at some length) about graffiti and its artistic potential. Indeed, I was reminded of it just the other day as I was heading back to London on the train, going past a rather fine mural of a shark beside the track (can't find a photo of it online, sadly). London has a fantastic supply of awesome graffiti — this and this are just beautiful, for example, and I love the South Bank combination skate park and graffiti wall.

Now, I can fully appreciate that even though I really like some graffiti work, it isn't to everyone's taste, and some people would rather it be removed. That's an occupational hazard for street artists, and if the people who live in the areas where it's particularly prevalent really don't want to look at it every day, it's hardly my place to tell them that their opinions shouldn't count.

All of which brings us to a news story that caught my eye today, about Bristol City Council planning to let members of the public vote on whether specific bits of street art should be kept or removed. This seems like a great idea, if they can make sure the voting's fair (apparently they're using an online poll, which isn't exactly immune from interference and will naturally skew the vote towards the younger end of the population). And if the public decide that a particular piece isn't worth keeping, more power to them.

Some people aren't happy with this development, though. To quote from the article (with emphasis added by me):

"The two words 'graffiti' and 'art' should never be put together," said the art critic Brian Sewell. He added the council were "bonkers". "The public doesn't know good from bad."

"For this city to be guided by the opinion of people who don't know anything about art is lunacy. It doesn't matter if they [the public] like it. It will result in a proliferation of entirely random decoration, for want of a better word," he said.
Oh dear. Who let Brian Sewell out of his crypt? I'm sure he knows a lot about art — at least I hope he does, given that that's his job — but he's committing the cardinal sin of a critic, that of thinking that only certain people are permitted to be critics.

That isn't to say that everyone's viewpoint is equally correct, or even equally worth listening to. If you can't back up an opinion with at least some kind of reasoning, no-one's very likely to listen to it. But that's a very long way from suggesting that only those who offer these opinions professionally should ever be heard, or indeed that people without the "proper" education are necessarily incapable of forming a reasoned judgement. I know practically nothing about art or its history, for example, and yet when I look at any particular bit of artwork I can generally come up with something specific that I like or dislike about it.

Sewell may have a grain of truth in his objections — after all, this is the country that has repeatedly voted on Big Brother enough to keep it on our screens (although not any more), so there isn't any guarantee that the people involved in the vote will choose a course of action that will improve Bristol. However, the main reason he's wrong in this case (quite apart from a breathtaking degree of arrogance &mdash and I know arrogance, given that I apparently think enough of myself that I write a bunch of stuff on a semi-regular basis and assume that a lot of strangers on the Internet might care about it at some point) is that this particular bit of artwork doesn't exist in a vacuum. Because it's street art, it's very much part of the city — and it's a city which enjoys a general lack of Brian Sewell, given that he lives in London.

That means that although Sewell may be perfectly within his rights to criticise street art in the context of art, his opinions as to its place in the city have no weight at all. And, more to the point, the people who do live in Bristol automatically have something of a right to decide what goes on there. Sewell's thesis, that the public shouldn't be allowed to decide what their city looks like because they don't necessarily know what a city "should" look like, is therefore flawed on two fronts. Not only does being part of a city give you at least some rights in shaping it, opinions are not necessarily exclusive to those who can back them up most effectively.

Now, given that I live in London, I wonder if I can vote to paint over Brian Sewell...

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

This does, of course, assume that all alien civilisations are familiar with the ASCII character set.

While browsing the internet today at lunchtime (yes, it was at work, but if they're going to give me an hour to eat lunch and also give me an unrestricted internet connection, the two are going to intersect sometimes), I came across Hello From Earth. This is a project that aims to send a whole lot of messages out to the nearest Earth-like planet we've yet found in the Galaxy, Gliese 581d. (Shame they couldn't come up with a snappier name.)

It's referred to as "Earth-like" because it's in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" of its parent star, Gliese 581. That means that it's neither too hot nor too cold, but the right temperature for liquid water to exist. Perhaps, then, we might find the much-vaunted "life as we know it" there. That is quite a large assumption — after all, we probably wouldn't notice if someone speculatively sent a burst of radio waves at our planet from squillions of miles away. Assuming, therefore, that it'll work at Gliese 581d, if there is indeed water there, and if there is indeed life, and if that life is advanced enough to detect radio, and if it happens to be listening at the time, and if it can decode our messages in any meaningful way, seems to be a bit of a tall order.

Not that it matters, really. Obviously it would be cool if someone did turn out to be listening, but the real value here is in seeing the kinds of things that people want to send out to the cosmos. Some of them go with general friendly greetings; Katrina from California, for example, will send the following:

Hello from Earth ! We come in peace. I look up at the universe every night wondering what magnificent things are out there, this could be one of those things.
Very nice, but perhaps not very informative. Other people have gone down the "dire warnings to the aliens" route, like CruelAngel from Budapest:
For your own safety... You should NOT land on our planet. It stinks.
A little pessimistic, perhaps.

There's plenty of vague platitudes, messages directed more at the people reading the site than at any hypothetical aliens, and (this being the internet) attempts to slag off everyone else using the site, although the fact that all messages must be verified and approved has kept the spam to a minimum. There are some funnier ones that I do like, though:
If you plan to study our species, please don't start with our television broadcasts. They require a lot of explanation.
Eric Zak
Phoenix, United States

To the owner of a red Porsche 944, your lights are on.
Wichita Falls, United States

Hello from Earth, please visit. We have cookies.
Chris Hully
Ottawa, Canada

Xenu, save us!
Tom Cruise
LA, United States
And lastly we have the people who are determined to demonstrate that the Earth holds advanced civilisations, and that we know stuff. I particularly liked this one from Luiz in São Paulo:
3,14159265358979323846 ***, * **** * ***** ********* ** ****** ***** *** ***** ******** ********* ******* ********* *** ** *** ******** **** ******
Simple and elegant.

So what, I hear you ask, did I decide to send? Well, I managed to up my geek points considerably by transmitting the following out into the Galaxy.
. . .. ... ..... ........ ............. ..................... .................................. .......................................................
Yes, with all the vistas of human knowledge open before me, I opted to send them the Fibonacci sequence expressed in full stops. I hope they're grateful for it when it turns up in December 2029.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Typing this up was not as cathartic as I'd hoped.

Time for a quick warning before we get into this post — it will be about swearing and bad language in general. Given that I don't normally swear at all, either in text or in speech, that's going to present some problems. My general position is that I want the front page at least to be entirely suitable for all ages, so I could simply avoid saying anything throughout the post that might be offensive. However, it's going to get really confusing if I start using constructions like "that word that starts with an 'f' and is very offensive", and I consider it an intellectual cop-out of the highest order to blank out words with asterisks. Anyone who reads the post is going to be entirely aware of which words I'm actually talking about, so I'm not going to insult your intelligence by pretending that blanking it out is any better.

So, the only real solution is to quote these more objectionable words in full, and to hide the rest of the post behind a cut. So here's the warning: The rest of this blog post will contain extremely strong language that you may find offensive. If you're the kind to be offended by it and would rather not read the rest, then feel free to go on your way. Please accept my apologies, and enjoy this video of adorable kittens instead. (For those on the RSS feed or reading this post anywhere but the blog's front page: the cut will not work for you, so anything after the video is unsafe.)

Awww. How sweet. OK, those of you who are still with me, and haven't been completely overwhelmed with kitteny joy (and if not, go and take a look at Cute Overload), let's get into it.

Certain parts of language have been deemed unacceptable for polite society for thousands of years, probably since the first caveman's wife threw the first caveman out his cave for saying "oog" too many times. Shakespeare was sailing pretty close to the wind with some of his language — "zounds" appears rather a lot (source) and is short for "by God's wounds"; "gadzooks" means "God's hooks". Both are references to the Crucifixion, and in a very Christian society (like the one in which Shakespeare lived), both of those words were very offensive. Go back further to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and you'll see the same thing, as the Parson scolds the Man of Law for using expressions like "for Goddes bones" and "by Goddes dignitee".

As you can see, religion has long been a source for swearing. That must go back at least to the Ten Commandments, the third of which forbids misusing God's name. Even so, faith-based swearing (to coin a phrase) is clearly not the only way that people could swear in Biblical times. The book of James goes on at some considerable length about how words can be harmful ("out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing", for example), and Paul had similar things to say in Ephesians 5:4: "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving."

It's pretty clear from a Christian perspective, then, that despite swearing's long heritage, it's not necessarily a good thing to exercise one's entire vocabulary all the time (and whatever the circumstances, misusing God's name is right out). However, does that necessarily mean that there are no circumstances in which some forms of swearing may be acceptable? How about the place where it's most often controversial, in art and media? Let's take a look at a few case studies, to see how language tends to be used and what its impact is.

Stand-up comedy
I may as well come out and say right now that I'm a huge fan of Eddie Izzard, but if I'm going to do a post on swearing there's no way I'm going to avoid talking about him. Here's a clip from his show "Glorious".

In case you weren't counting, that clip contained 14 "fucks" or variations thereof, two "bastard"s, two "bloody"s, and a "Jesus Christ". And yet, I don't find Izzard remotely offensive. Obviously I'm not about to quote his work verbatim in mixed company (I tend to strategically miss out words, of which more later), but I'm more than happy to watch him for hours despite the near-constant barrage of four-letter words. I think the reason is that the swearing isn't the point of the joke. In the above clip, for example, it serves as little more than punctuation — his miming and observational humour is considerably funnier than the fact that he's saying "fuck" a lot, but the swearing does also help to give him a rhythm and a recognisable vocal persona.

Now, contrast that with Billy Connolly. (OK, this is a little unfair, as this clip is Connolly on the subject of swearing, but still.)

Don't get me wrong, that's still funny (and Connolly does make a good point, which we'll come back to in a bit). However, because the swearing is the point of the joke — note how everyone's in raucous laughter after the first bellowing "FUCK OFF!" — I don't find it nearly as entertaining, and I certainly wouldn't be happy showing it to anyone else. (Apart from all of you, of course.) When swearing gets you a laugh, regardless of what else you might be saying, it must be very tempting for comedians just to sprinkle a few swearwords in and leave it at that.

The first time I watched the classic The Silence of the Lambs, I don't think I knew what certificate it was. I wasn't left in any doubt, however, when about three minutes in, Miggs, one of the prisoners in Hannibal Lecter's cell block, snarled "I can smell your cunt!" at Clarice Starling. Bang, instant 18 certificate. Now, The Silence of the Lambs is not a nice film anyway, and the violence later on would push it well into 18 territory regardless of the language used. Nevertheless, the tone is set very early on. Having seen very little of the film, we're already aware of the kind of person that Miggs is, and (by extension) the kind of person that Lecter must also be, to be locked up with him. It's very clever writing, which works because of the choice of language rather than despite it.

On the other hand, we have films like Wanted, on which I made my opinions abundantly clear some time ago. A quick search of an early draft of the script reveals 25 uses of the word "fuck" (again including variants), 18 uses of "shit", and (somewhat surprisingly) only a single "dick". This is a film that is trying very, very hard to be edgy and controversial, but completely fails on every level by being utterly ridiculous. As such, the swearing doesn't add anything to it, and simply feels like it's overdoing it to no great effect. (And in case you were wondering, The Silence of the Lambs makes it to a comparatively clean eleven uses of "fuck".)

So far, then, it seems that swearing can be a valuable tool for creating an atmosphere, but because of its potency it requires good writing and acting to then back up that atmosphere with something more meaty. Get it wrong, and your atmosphere becomes a load of hot air, and becomes offensive not only for the swearing but only because you can't believe you just paid money to see something quite so poor.

As words are obviously the key medium for carrying information in books, far more than for any other medium, this is a pretty huge topic. As such, I'm not even going to try to cover the whole thing. Instead, let's look at just one example of how swearing can work with not swearing to create something very impressive.

The example I'm going to use is from Terry Pratchett, one of the authors I read more than anyone else when I was younger, and who still sits comfortably in my list of favourite writers. He has a real gift for language, but doesn't go in much for lyrical word-pictures. His speciality is more that he picks the right words for the task, and brings about the effect he wanted in just a few words. He also tends not to swear at all in his writing, and in fact turned that very fact into a joke in his novel The Truth, in which one of the characters constantly left gaps in his speech, such that the other characters kept remarking on what the word "___ing" could possibly mean. So it was quite a surprise to suddenly hit this near the end of the book Hogfather:

"Worlds of belief, she thought. Just like oysters. A little piece of shit gets in and then a pearl grows up around it."
That use of "shit" shocked me when I reached it, not because the word is inherently shocking, but because the whole book is about children and how their beliefs shape the world around them, and the language tends to match that. Having had nothing that could be remotely construed as offensive for page after page, that one word was a jolt, and one that gave the metaphor being used a lot more potency.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no word that could have been used in that metaphor that would have had quite the same impact. Evoking an extreme of distaste shortly before swinging it back to beauty with the word "pearl" is a very clever construction, and serves to turn something that was horrible into something wonderful.

So, was Billy Connolly right? Are there situations where you just don't get the right effect unless you're swearing? I would suggest so. One of my favourite musicians, Mark "E" Everett of American rock band Eels, penned a song that illustrates this perfectly. Do me a favour — hover your mouse over this link, close your eyes so that you can't see the title of the song (the link takes you to Youtube), and click. Listen through the beautiful piano-and-strings introduction, and pay attention to the lurch that the opening line of singing produces. Go ahead, I'll wait.

For those who didn't follow those instructions, I'll just plough ahead anyway. I'm entirely aware that the word "motherfucker" is extremely unpleasant. The word doesn't even sound nice, even if you don't pay attention to its connotations. And yet, E has used it brilliantly here. He's taken the depth of feeling that the word evokes (and it's pretty deep), but instead of directing it into anger, he's made it melancholy. The overall effect is one of incredible sadness, giving us a feeling of great loss and tragedy, and he's done that in hardly any words. Once you take into account that E has had a very difficult life (and he wrote that song mere months after his mother died of cancer, practically in his arms), you begin to feel that (to quote E way out of context) "if anyone knew that it is, indeed, a motherfucker", it's him.

The same effect is present on other songs, too. Radiohead's "Creep" is a prime example; when Thom Yorke sneers "I wish I was special / You're so fuckin' special", it turns what could be an expression of admiration into a sarcastic dismissal. Other words don't quite cut it — the radio-friendly version replaces "fuckin'" with "very", which still kind of works, but doesn't have the same bite to it. Conversely, I almost always skip over REM's "Star Me Kitten" if it comes up on shuffle, because of the chorus:
You, me, we used to be on fire
If keys are all that stand between,
Can I throw in the ring?
No gasoline
Just fuck me kitten
You are wild and I'm in your possession
Nothing's free so, fuck me kitten
I can't pretend to completely understand Michael Stipe's lyrics (in any of his music, come to think of it), but this seems like a very bleak song. I can't detect any love in what's being said, and the use of "fuck" here just seems cold and empty. It's unnecessary, and adds nothing to the song, which allows its inherent offensiveness to take over again.

The mention of "Creep" above takes us into the final thing I want to talk about, which is censorship of swearing. Because it has been decided that certain words are not for young ears (a concept that seems fine in principle, but leads to some strange effects in practice), music producers have come up with a number of ways of making sure that young people can still buy their songs. The first is simply to blank out swear words, either by beeps, or by cutting the volume of the vocal track at that point, or even by playing the swearword backwards. I have very little time for this tactic — as I said in the introduction to this post, anyone who hears a bleep is certain to be able to work out from context what the word actually was, and therefore has experienced the swearing just as much as someone who hears the unbleeped version. Worse than that, even if the bleeped word was actually not that offensive, they're now imagining the worst. If you don't believe me, have a look at this, and see what your brain fills in.

Alternatively, artists sometimes record a completely different version. We've covered "Creep" already, which at least doesn't do too much damage to the song; it can, however, get ridiculous. The worst offender I've seen recently was Katy Perry's "Hot and Cold". The song itself isn't bad, as songs go — fairly chirpy dancy pop, with pretty funny lyrics and a good hook. However, a couple of lines in the first verse caused trouble with the censors:
"You change your mind
Like a girl changes clothes,
And you PMS
Like a bitch - I should know..."
Not even that offensive, really. Perry gets away with making a PMS joke by virtue of, well, being a girl, and also because she does so in a self-deprecating way. The meaning she's going for is "you act like a cranky bitch, and as I'm a cranky bitch myself, you'd better believe me."

Once the censors got their hands on it, though, the word "bitch" was replaced with "girl". Suddenly, not only does it become way more offensive, implying that all girls are cranky and irritable, but it also makes absolutely no sense. "You act like a cranky girl. I'm a girl too." Yes, Katy, we had noticed. You're wearing a dress. It was fairly obvious, really.

So, after nearly 2,500 words, we come to the conclusion. Unfortunately, I don't know what it is. Is swearing something we should probably try to cut out of everyday language? Yeah, I think it probably is — for the most part, it doesn't really do a whole lot of good. Are there times when it is necessary? Also yes. Now and again, a swearword is the only one that could possibly fit with the concept you're trying to evoke (Margaret Atwood makes a very good case for her use of "fuck" in The Handmaid's Tale, for example). And can you frequently get into difficulties when trying to remove bad language from art? Most definitely.

So how do we reconcile those ideas? Probably not with hard and fast rules. What's offensive for one person may not be for others (I'm guessing that if you're still here and didn't abandon ship shortly after the kittens, you're not easily offended), so give and take is definitely going to be required. And this is the important part — give and take doesn't mean that one side only gives and the other only takes. If you're not comfortable with swearing in media, that's fine, but please understand that there are those of us who don't mind it and think it can be useful without being offensive. Likewise, if you swear like a longshoreman, be aware that someone who doesn't like hearing certain words is not actually trying to infringe upon your human rights.

You know, I wish my posts didn't end so frequently with the equivalent of "so basically we should all be nicer to each other," but seriously people, isn't it a message worth hearing?

Continue Reading...

Sunday, 26 July 2009

A change is as good as a rest, or so they say.

As promised, The Beautiful Hypothesis has undergone a redesign. New colour scheme, new logo (it's new by default, I suppose, given that I didn't use a logo at all before), slightly cleaner design, and fewer gadgets cluttering up the sidebar. Oh, and the post expansion function works again, although it isn't running on my own code (that turned out to involve rather more complicated Javascript than I'm capable of managing).

It is entirely possible that I've broken some of the old posts, or made them look weird. If you happen to notice anything going wrong (or more wrong than before), would you be so good as to drop me a note, either in the comments or to the email address in the sidebar? General comments are also welcome — for instance, I'm not sure whether I've hit that sweet spot colour-wise between "so vivid it burns our eyes, preciousss" and "so gloomy it makes me want to cry".

Normal posting service should resume shortly. Thanks for your patience!

Continue Reading...

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Thank you for calling The Beautiful Hypothesis Technical Support. All our operators are currently busy. Please hold...

You may have noticed if you've been here recently that the "Continue Reading..." links, which function in much the same way as a LiveJournal cut (ie. they hide the particularly long and/or boring bits of the post and let you just read a few paragraphs if you so wish), have suddenly stopped working. This is because of rather poor design on my part, I'm afraid — you'd have thought that even two and a half years ago, I might have been technically savvy enough to realise that making your entire blog dependent on code that was hosted on some complete stranger's server was a really bad idea, for quite a number of reasons — but there we go.

The upshot of this is that any post with a "Continue Reading..." link will continue not to work until I replace the missing code that used to do the expansion with some of my own. It may take me a few days to get round to doing that, so I may as well fold it into a full redesign that I was planning to do anyway. (Various shades of brown are so mid-2007.)

With any luck, I should manage to do that this weekend, so the problems should be fixed by then. In the meantime, if you want to read any post which does have a broken "Continue Reading...", just click on the post title. That should load the entire post, including the content from behind the cut, in a new page. Or alternatively, use the RSS feed, which doesn't include cuts at all.

Thanks, and sorry for the inconvenience!

Continue Reading...

Saturday, 18 July 2009

How come it's never the Communists doing this? We do still have a Communist Party, right?

Blimey, it's been a long time since I posted anything here. Consider it an extended summer recess. In the time since the last post...

  • I've moved house
  • I've spent two weeks in Wales (which has sparked some interesting ideas — couple of posts in the pipeline for that one)
  • Swine flu returned to the news, despite being largely ignored by most people
  • Norway won the Eurovision Song Contest with a record-breaking score that it really didn't deserve. Come on, people, it was hardly Hard Rock Hallelujah.
  • Michael Jackson died and had the most bizarre funeral ever seen
  • Sarah Palin quit politics, at least until she decides to announce her 2012 candidacy and makes the Internet a horrible place to be once again
  • Roger Federer surprised absolutely nobody by winning Wimbledon again, and Andy Murray also surprised nobody by not winning Wimbledon (one day, Andy...one day...)
And amongst all these other occurrences, the UK elected two far-right racists to the European Parliament. Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons of the British National Party are now being paid around 84,000 Euros a year (currently about £72,500) to sit in what has been called one of the most powerful legislatures in the world.

If you get the impression that I'm not overly thrilled with this development, you're entirely correct. The BNP (no, I'm not going to link to their website — Google it if you really want to) is a horrendous organisation, committed to the idea that non-white people are inherently inferior to whites. Their policies include bringing back corporal and capital punishment, "voluntary repatriation" of immigrants (and you can imagine just how "voluntary" that would really be), criminalising mixed-race relationships, and barring the provision of any public money to "non-British" (for which read non-white) organisations. Nick Griffin has done his very best to hide the party's ugliest attributes under a veneer of respectability, but quotations like "power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate" and a call to support its policies with "well directed boots and fists" show you where his sympathies really lie.

It is very important that we prevent the BNP from ever getting any real kind of power. However, I have to say, I'm not that worried about them, for two main reasons. The first is that Britain is not actually populated by a jack-booted horde of thugs. The vast majority of people vote for parties that advocate policies in line with basic human decency. You'll notice that the BNP is the only far-right party that even gets any attention in the media, for the simple reason that none of the others ever get enough support to even mount candidacies, and they've managed that precisely because Griffin has been actively trying to hide their racism.

The second reason is that the BNP do, in fact, provide a useful function in British politics. So long as we can keep them from gaining any real power, but keep their supporters thinking that they might, the BNP will act as a filter, funneling all the foaming Nazi lunatics off into itself and keeping them out of the major parties that might actually stand a chance of getting power.

To see what happens when the far-right parties get marginalised almost out of existence, you only have to look at the USA. There, the racist morons and rabid far-right have all ended up going into the Republican party, where the voice of sensible small-c conservatism (advocating small government, reduced taxes, personal responsibility for finances — things that are incredibly valuable to public discourse, even if I don't think they're always the right way to go) can all too often be drowned out by "they're taking all our jobs! Kill everyone who doesn't look like us!"

You don't have to look too far to see this happening. It reached fever pitch during the recent Presidential election (this is the kind of thing I'm talking about - not safe for those who get angry easily), but elements of the same craziness are present right up to the top. See, for example, Sarah Palin trying to paint Barack Obama's supporters as not part of "real America", or Minnesota Congressional Representative Michele Bachmann making a terrifyingly McCarthyist call for Congress to be investigated to see which of its members were anti-American. And if you've got some time on your hands, read this illuminating article to see what the American right gets up to when it thinks the journalists aren't around.

So should we be opposing the BNP? Oh, yes. Any power they do manage to get is undoubtedly too much, and any of their influence is most unwelcome. But at the same time, they're a useful safety valve. We're always going to have right-wing racist nutjobs in this country — we have a long record of breeding them (hi, Oswald Mosley!) But we have a record just as long of not electing them, and that's the key. In the meantime, those on the left should be concentrating their efforts against the slightly more moderate right. UKIP made huge gains in the European elections, for example, and a party that decides it has to put "non-racist" in its search engine result summary (see result #1) doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Neither do their rather worrying manifestos, which seem to promote deregulation of practically everything.

Not that it matters too much right now, anyway. We're some way off the next election — Gordon Brown is almost certain to hang on until the last possible moment. And, while crazy racist nutjobs are undoubtedly a problem...

...they're a problem that can easily be handled with eggs.

Continue Reading...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Constable does not know the power of the Dark Side...

Taking advantage of the lovely weather and the Bank Holiday weekend, I ventured into London once again yesterday, and did Cultural Stuff. By which I mean that I went to the National Gallery. And it was there that I found out several fascinating things.

  1. Pictures of Mary and the infant Jesus were remarkably popular a few hundred years ago.
  2. Almost without exception, the infant Jesus is portrayed in these pictures as either gigantic, or terrifying, or sometimes (for bonus points) both.
  3. A subset of these pictures involve Mary nursing Jesus. The artists who produced these ones seem to have had some very funny ideas about female anatomy. One in particular (which I sadly can't find on the National Gallery website) appears to suggest that Jesus was able to feed by suckling Mary's collarbone.
  4. While we're on the subject, this is Jan Gossaert's Adam and Eve:

    Not only is Adam sporting a fine 'fro, he also seems to have just as well-developed a chest area as his wife. Maybe Gossaert only knew extremely thin women or something. And those trees are clearly both sentient and easily embarrassed.
  5. Seeing a painting in the gallery lets you pick up on all sorts of details that you might otherwise miss. This, for example, is John Constable's The Hay Wain.

    You've probably seen that painting a hundred times. At my primary school, we even had an enormous version of it done as a collage (although that's understandable, given that the school was about twenty minutes' walk away from the spot where Constable painted it). But I bet you never noticed who was hiding in the reeds over to the right...

    Uncanny, eh?

Time for boring copyright stuff! So, none of the images here are covered by the blog's CC licence. I reckon all of them are, for this specific use, covered by the Fair Dealing provision of UK law (and in any case they're hosted on Photobucket, which is a US-based service, so fair use probably applies too). As you can tell from the watermark, the detail from The Hay Wain was unceremoniously yoinked off the National Gallery website. Everything else is either from Wikipedia or from other online image repositories (or in other words, I can't quite remember).

Continue Reading...

Monday, 27 April 2009

For the record, I wrote the original email before the G20. It would have been rather angrier if I'd waited a week or so.

As you'll notice if you look back a couple of posts, I sent an email off to the Home Office the other week about the frankly appalling Policing Pledge posters currently around the UK. Well, in a move that has left me pleasantly surprised, the Home Office has responded! (By sending an email with the letter in an attached Word document for some unfathomable reason, but you can't have everything...)

23 April 2009

Dear Mr Brien

Thank you for your email of 29 March 2009 to the Home Office about the Policing Pledge. As the Home Secretary receives a large amount of correspondence and is unfortunately not able to respond to each item individually, I have been asked to reply.

As you will know, all 43 forces have implemented the Policing Pledge. This is a fantastic achievement and means that now, for the first time, the public know the standard of service they can expect to receive from the police and have a greater say over the issues that they would like the police to prioritise in their local areas.

The communications aim is to make the public aware that they now have access to local crime information through an improved online service via Directgov. This includes a better and quicker search by postcode taking the public directly to improved Neighbourhood Policing Team pages on force websites via www.direct.gov/policingpledge which also has more information about the Pledge and a facility to search by postcode or map for your local contacts and your local crime information.

We note your concerns, but would like to thank you for taking the time to write and also your support for the Policing Pledge.

Yours sincerely

Duncan Mitchell
Well, I have to say, Duncan, that's a rather more pleasant response than I was expecting, given the levels of snark I threw at you, so bonus points there. On the other hand, I'm not at all sure what "we note your concerns" means; it sounds suspiciously like "thanks for writing, but we're not going to so much as acknowledge the possibility of changing anything we do".

Nevertheless, the air of form letter that pervades the whole thing does at least suggest that they've sent quite a lot of letters similar to this one. Can but hope that if enough people did, then the message has got through that maybe accidentally threatening the public with poorly-worded signs isn't the way to go..

Continue Reading...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Assuming Men Can Fly: Apocalypse in the Year 3000

I've been without the internet for the past few days, after Thames Water managed to dig through an "uncharted obstruction" on the Olympic stadium site which turned out to be one of BT's major communications links. Suddenly BT was running on hugely reduced broadband capacity, which meant that everyone to whom they acted as a broadband wholesaler was also having problems, bringing pretty much all ADSL connections in much of England to a shuddering halt. Not the ideal way to spend a week's holiday, but oddly calming.

Not having web access has meant that I've had plenty of time to watch DVDs with my family, one of which has been The Big Bang Theory, a fairly new US sitcom about two nerdy physicists whose geeky lives are interrupted by the arrival of an attractive young woman in the flat next door. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

The show's main attraction is not the storylines — practically nothing actually happens from week to week. Rather, it's the interactions of the main characters, most of whom are the most insanely nerdish people you've ever seen. Speaking as someone who is not only a fairly high-level geek, but also lives and works with them every single day, and indeed celebrates his geekishness, I can confirm that although The Big Bang Theory's nerds are exaggerated, it's not really by that much. The reason the show works is that it goes far enough from real life to be funny, while still letting the true geek see himself (or, rather more rarely, herself) in some of the behaviour on screen.

For example, in one of the earliest episodes, our four loveable nerds get into a protracted argument about the physics of Superman, and why Lois Lane should have been cut into three equal parts by Superman's arms of steel when he caught her after a fall of several hundred feet. This is something that I love doing — taking the rules presented by a work of fiction, and extrapolating them to test their internal consistency. Star Trek nerds are famous for it, to the point where the show's writers went so far as to rewrite bits of the script to acknowledge problems pointed out by fans.

I like doing this so much, in fact, that I'm going to give it the kiss of death by starting yet another occasional blog feature. I'm fully aware that most of these are languishing in one- or two-post obscurity by this point, but screw it, it'll be fun while it lasts. In homage to its sitcom roots, I'm calling it Assuming Men Can Fly.

Entry #1 in this series is something that has bugged me for entirely too long — the lyrics to Busted's song "Year 3000". Here's the song in all its questionable glory.

I'm fully aware that there are plenty of reasons to dislike Busted, but I'm not really objecting to this song on most levels. It's chirpy, fairly harmless, and considerably better than the saccharine version by the Jonas Brothers, which manages the rather implausible feat of censoring Busted's lyrics while Auto-Tuning the vocals more than I thought possible. No, my objection is based purely on the mathematics of that chorus.

He said "I've been to the year 3000,
Not much has changed, but they live underwater,
And your great-great-great-granddaughter,
Is pretty fine."
OK, let's look at the rules under which we're operating. The first verse has already provided the premise — the singer's next-door neighbour Peter is capable of visiting the future and has in fact done so. We therefore have to assume that time travel is possible, that Peter is not lying, and that his report of the year 3000 is essentially factually accurate. Other than that, the present-day world in which the song takes place is indistinguishable from our own, so we can assume that all its restrictions apply equally well.

The problems focus on the singer's great-great-great-granddaughter. The singer himself is in his 20s in the above video — let's make the (not unreasonable nowadays) assumption that he will be about 40 when his last child is born. Over the timescales we're looking at, we're as nearly as makes no difference at the year 2010 right now, so we can therefore assume that this child is born in approximately 2030. Let's chart the data so far.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Daughter 2030

Next, we'll assume that medical science advances at such a rate that in each successive generation, lifespan and general health have increased the age at which you can successfully have children by 20 years. That's probably quite a generous assumption, but the song's optimistic enough (at least at first glance) to think that we won't have wiped ourselves out with nuclear war, overpopulation or disease epidemics in the next 1000 years, so let's go with it. That puts the singer's daughter at the age of 60 when she has her last child, so we can fill in the next row of the table as well.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Daughter 2030 60
Granddaughter 2090 80

From there, it's a pretty simple operation to fill in the next three generations as well.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Daughter 2030 60
Granddaughter 2090 80
Great-granddaughter 2170 100
Great-great-granddaughter 2270 120
Great-great-great-granddaughter 2390 140

So essentially, the singer's great-great-great-granddaughter — who, we are told, is "pretty fine" in the year 3000 — is also six hundred and ten years old. Even with our generous assumptions about medical science, this seems rather implausible — even if she's somehow managed to live that long, the odds of her looking "pretty fine" are slim enough that it tells us rather more about Peter's taste in women than it does about the future.

So, like all good scientists, the first thing we change is our assumptions. The first thing we can do is assume that the last child in each generation, apart from the great-great-great-granddaughter herself, is always male. Men can reproduce to a much greater age than women (practically to the end of life), so if we make the assumption that this is what's happening (despite the rather unpleasant accompanying mental images), we can get a much bigger increase in reproductive age in each generation. Let's assume that longevity is improved to much better degree than maximum age of childbirth, and that 40 years are therefore added to each successive generation. Our table now looks like this.

Generation Year of birth Age at birth of last child
Singer n/a 40
Son 2030 80
Grandson 2110 120
Great-grandson 2230 160
Great-great-grandson 2390 200
Great-great-great-granddaughter 2590 240

Hmm. Well, it's an improvement, but not a great one — now she's a sprightly 410 years of age when we see her. Clearly there's a gap somewhere of several hundred years, during which no successive generations are produced but the family continues. There are several mechanisms by which this could happen.
  1. Global catastrophe. A war, or an asteroid impact, or some other cataclysmic event causes the Earth's population to be drastically reduced. In a bid to keep humans genetically diverse, scientists take DNA samples from as many surviving people as possible while the population decreases. When conditions improve, new humans are cloned from these samples, thus keeping a consistent bloodline while still allowing for a long period of time to pass.
  2. Cryonic preservation. At some point in the family tree, one of the singer's descendants becomes critically ill and, before his death, opts to have himself cryonically preserved until such time as medical science can cure him. After several hundred years, either this occurs, or the scientists involved suddenly realise that there isn't actually any cure for death, and just clone him instead.
  3. Suspended animation. A technique is developed, several hundred years from now, which can slow down time over a very small area. One of the singer's descendants, either by design or by chance, gets trapped in an area of this type and is preserved until such time as the effect is removed. As far as he is concerned, almost no time has passed, so he is still biologically viable; reproduction continues naturally.
  4. Time travel. One of our starting assumptions is that it's possible to travel to the future. Perhaps the singer took further jaunts into the future with Peter, and at some point managed to start a family several hundred years further down the line than expected.
All interesting possibilities, and I'm certain all of them have been used in science fiction stories before now. But which, if any, has occurred in this case? The clue is in the chorus reproduced above.
Not much has changed, but they live under water...
This seems to suggest that option one is the most likely. A disaster of Biblical proportions has either caused the sea levels to rise, or rendered the land uninhabitable, with the result that humanity now lives under the sea. It has also apparently changed human physiology (a later verse suggests that there are now three-breasted women who swim around totally naked), which may indicate a higher rate of mutations, possibly indicating in turn that the land's surface is off limits due to dangerous levels of nuclear fallout. In this reading, "Year 3000", far from being a perky song about time travel, is actually a dire warning about the coming threat of nuclear Armageddon.

However, there is an alternative reading, suggested by the lyrics of the last verse:
I took a trip to the year 3000,
This song had gone multi-platinum,
Everyone bought our seventh album...
A cursory reading of Busted's Wikipedia page shows that, prior to their split in 2005, the band in fact released only two albums. This suggests a fifth possibility:

  1. Multiple timelines. The original trip into the future did not, in fact, visit our world as it will be in the year 3000; rather, it caused the universe's timelines to fork, delivering the singer and his neighbour to a different world, one in which lifespans increase by 78 years each generation (the exact amount required, under the all-male assumptions, for the great-great-great-granddaughter to be aged 30 by the year 3000), where Busted stayed together long enough to record 7 albums, where humans live idyllic lives among the fishes, and where women have three breasts for some reason.
The question now, of course, is this: if our cheery spiky-haired singer went off into that timeline, and his offspring populate that one rather than this one, presumably he stayed there. Does that mean that, in the song's universe, the members of Busted no longer exist within the world as we know it?

And if so, please can I go there?

Continue Reading...

Sunday, 29 March 2009

While we're on the subject of civil liberties...

The following is the complete text of an email that I just sent to the Home Office'sPolice feedback webpage (with links and formatting added for context). Don't know if it'll have any effect, but it's worth a try — I'll post any replies that I get here.


I was walking through Enfield today and saw one of the new Policing Pledge posters, specifically the "Anything You Say May Be Taken Down And Used As Evidence" one. Now, I fully support the idea of the Policing Pledge — I think it's a great idea to get the public involved in this way, and opening a dialogue with people can only be a good thing. However, this particular campaign could very quickly descend into a public relations nightmare, for the following reasons.

First, selecting as your slogan a phrase which is only ever used when people are arrested is not exactly the best way to show that the police are on the side of the public. It immediately conjures up images of officers tackling people to the ground and snapping on the handcuffs, meaning that the very first impression that people take away is decidedly negative.

Secondly, once that image is in someone's head, they will immediately interpret "Anything You Say May Be Taken Down And Used As Evidence" as "Shut up, we don't tolerate dissent around here". Why? Because many of those who see it are going to mentally tack on the words "Against You" to the end of the slogan — I know I did. Coming on the heels of the ludicrously paranoid anti-terror posters that have gone up, suggesting that terrorist attacks can be deterred by people snooping on their neighbours and rummaging through their bins, you're helping to create a public image of repression, not openness.

Thirdly, using the style of the classic "Keep Calm And Carry On" poster is a very bad idea. If people were going to interpret your slogans as they were meant, then sure, it's a witty homage to the original poster. But given that a significant proportion of the public are going to interpret your intentions in the way I outlined above, it looks like you're co-opting something very laudable (dare I say, something deeply British) and turning it on its head, making its meaning "watch what you say and do, because we're after you". In the end, it looks like a sick parody of the original slogan, made by someone who read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and thought "hey, these Thought Police guys have all the right ideas!"

I'm yet to have any personal experience with the police that wasn't thoroughly professional, which made it all the more jolting when I saw this poster. The fact that I had to come as far as your website to find out that actually, it wasn't a campaign aimed at terrifying me into mindless obedience, shows that something has gone terribly wrong in your public relations unit. Please try to rectify this rapidly, as I am absolutely sure I'm not the only person who is going to see it like this. As I said, the Policing Pledge is a good thing — I'd hate to see it ruined by a misjudgment like this.

Yours sincerely,

Philip Brien

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

One more bad thing: it's led to yet more tired overuse of1984references. Orwell must be rolling his grave.

Question: Is Google Street View...

  • An amazing piece of technological achievement, unrivalled in the history of the Internet, or:
  • Terrifyingly creepy?
Answer: Yes.

Let's be clear on a couple of points. Google undoubtedly has every right in the world to take photos in public spaces, and to make those photos freely available to anyone who wants to see them. It's a right that photographers have enjoyed pretty much since photography was invented, and it is an important part of our freedom of expression that we can photograph those things that some people would rather we not photograph. Inconvenient it may sometimes be, but that's part of the price of a free society.

What's more, the technological advances that have made Street View possible are nothing short of stunning. Digital cameras have been around in some form since the '70s, GPS since the '90s, and 360-degree photographs since at least 1980. Yet all these elements only came together in 2007, when Google launched Street View in the States and allowed thousands of people to walk haltingly along rather pixelated virtual streets, gawking at their surroundings in a way that previously they could have done only by, well, actually going there.

So Street View is undoubtedly a good thing in those respects. But — and this is important — although something might be legal, and although it might be cool, that does not necessarily make it a sensible thing to do. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Google may have something to learn from Facebook here.

Facebook has the capability to simultaneously stir deep, virulent rage and fanatical loyalty within the hearts of its users. They may log in every day to tirelessly check their status, but change the layout by a single pixel and they will have no mercy. You'd have thought that the site's owners would notice this, but apparently not — back in 2006, they seemed genuinely surprised that their proud unveiling of the News Feed feature, which gathered data from all of a user's friends and presented it in a very information-rich format, was greeted with sheer horror by thousands of users.

Facebook's response to the unprecedented amounts of bile pouring towards them was simply "But you put this information here in the first place! Why are you angry that people can see it?" On the face of it, that's not unreasonable. What they failed to take into account, though, was that the context in which that information had been put onto the site was very different to the context in which it was now being presented, perhaps to the point that users would not have entered that information had they known it would be broadcast to everyone they vaguely knew.

It was an easy mistake to make, to be fair. Cultural standards are frequently illogical and inflexible — clothing styles that would be seen as modest on a Hawaiian beach would be taken as a sign of disgusting immorality in conservative Middle Eastern countries, for example — and on the Internet, cultures spring up, clash and meld at terrifying rates. Facebook's owners had spent years in an environment where they were dealing every day with tons of personal information, and they had lost sight of the value that their users put on it.

In the same way, Google, caught up in their excitement at this Really Cool Thing, didn't realise that there are some things that people simply would not have done if they knew they'd be visible to anyone and everyone. That doesn't need to imply that these things are embarrassing or immoral in themselves — if I were, for instance, going out with someone but hadn't told anyone because I wasn't sure whether it would work out, I wouldn't necessarily want pictures of me at a romantic candlelit dinner being splashed onto the Internet where certain rather excitable members of my family could see them. (Yes, that example is entirely hypothetical. Calm down.) Privacy isn't something that is required only when you're doing something questionable, it's something that we can and should be able to expect at all times.

It's not a new concept — if I may go all Scriptural for a second, Paul says in 1 Corinthians that "everything is permissible for me — but not everything is beneficial." Street View is immensely cool (hey, look, you can even see the bike racks we installed on the house in Oxford where I lived in 2007!) and it's also legal. It's just not necessarily a very good idea, and I really hope they can work out the kinks so that it can be another classic Google product: awesome, and only a tiny bit evil.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Doughnuts are not included. De-boost.

In our modern technologically-connected world — of which you're seeing evidence right now, seeing as this content is being delivered to you from Google's servers in LA, despite the fact that I wrote it in a flat in Enfield — information is the new currency. That's really not much of an exaggeration. Especially now that the economy is imploding spectacularly, any edge that a company can get over its rivals is going to be ruthlessly exploited. And if they can dress up such an edge as actually being for the benefit of their customers, all the better.

Supermarket loyalty cards are a great example. These schemes started off as something of a white elephant for the supermarkets — although they're a big draw for customers, they cost a lot to keep going and probably offer little tangible benefit to the retailer (anyone who shops in a particular place often enough to want a loyalty card is unlikely to be regularly shopping elsewhere anyway) — but once one of them started offering the scheme, everyone else jumped on board in an attempt not to get left behind. That means that supermarkets have desperately floundered to make money out of it ever since, and one of the ways they can do that is to use the information they gather.

Consider what information the supermarket has about you. If they know everything that you buy in their shops, they can estimate the size and composition of your family, your average alcohol consumption, your waistline (those pizzas add up), your social schedule (so how often are you buying multi-packs of Doritos?) and your general economic situation. And that means that they can, in theory, target their marketing very accurately. For example, if they work out that, statistically speaking, it's a likely week for you to buy ice-cream, they can draw your attention to the special offers they have on the expensive brands. If you haven't bought chocolate in the last three weeks, they might push Weight Watchers products.

We almost certainly will never see the exact information held about us, although I suppose a Data Protection Act request might be interesting. There's one time when you get to see the conclusions drawn by the supermarket very clearly, though, and that's when they send you money-off vouchers. This is the most precise form of marketing that they can produce, so it'll always be the most information-rich time in your relationship with your local retailer.

Obviously, I find this concept slightly creepy, but at the same time I'm an absolute sucker for finding out interesting stuff about myself. That's why I like last.fm, despite it having almost no practical use — being able to point to a summary ofeverything I've ever listened to when connected to their service is kind of fun, and tells me a lot about my music taste. So I had a rather enjoyable little moment the other week, when I found some of the coupons Tesco had sent me in the past few months.

Boy, do they know me.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ever wanted to live in the '50s for ever? Yeah, won't sound so appealing in a few minutes.

Around the New Year, a couple of things happened that I meant to post about, but haven't got round to until now. One of those was the fact that the character of Popeye is now in the public domain within the EU, but really, aside from putting a few pictures of Popeye in the post there's not a lot I can do with that.

Above: Public domain in the EU. Which is where the server hosting it happens to be. Har.

So let's look at the other (and rather sadder) event that happened around Christmas: the death of Henry Molaison, known to thousands of psychology students simply as "HM".

I first learnt about HM in my first year at university, when I was first being introduced to the neurophysiology behind memory. It's a fearsomely complicated topic — we spent a considerable time covering the debate about what the different kinds of memory even were, let alone how they worked — and it was impressed on us very quickly that there is no single part of the brain that "does" memory. We learnt about Karl Lashley, the American mad scientist neuroscientist who removed progressively more and more brain tissue from a rat, observing how it never suddenly lost the ability to run a maze. We listened to lecture after lecture as various learned people found new and interesting ways of saying "yeah, we don't really know how this works".

And then, bringing it all into clear and frighteningly relevant focus, along came HM. He was born in 1926, and developed very severe epilepsy at a young age. In an attempt to cure him that some would describe as "experimental" and others would describe as "ludicrously reckless", surgeon William Scoville removed pretty much all of his posterior hippocampus, along with a few other bits that he wasn't even aiming for. In case you're a bit rusty on your neuroanatomy, the hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped bit of brain, buried deep in its craggy folds, which is instrumental in the formation of short-term memories and in spatial reasoning.

"Why, that's foolish," you're probably thinking. "If Scoville knew that, why on earth did he remove it?" Well, he didn't know it at that point. Indeed, the main reason we know anything about the role of the hippocampus in laying down memories is that HM, immediately after recovery from the operation, was entirely unable to remember anything that had happened more than a few hours previously.

Although he was cured of epilepsy, HM was now suffering from a condition called anterograde amnesia. This isn't the type of amnesia that Hollywood loves so much, where you forget who you are but otherwise function perfectly normally (that's retrograde amnesia, and is usually considerably more debilitating than your average schmaltzy matinee movie would have it). Instead, HM remembered most of the events that took place up to his operation, but woke up each morning with no idea of what had happened since then.

It's a testament to the strength of HM's personality that he didn't go completely insane. Scoville, presumably in an attempt to work out which bits of the brain he shouldn't take out next time, worked closely with him for years afterwards, but every day HM met him for the first time. Every day he had to learn what was wrong with him, every day he had to come to terms with a world that was unaccountably no longer in 1953. Worse than that, he had to cope with the vast numbers of people who knew absolutely everything about him, but who (as far as he could tell) he had never met.

One of the insights that HM brought us was the difference between episodic memories (those about a particular event) and procedural memories (those covering general abilities and knowledge that you don't realise you know). Although he couldn't form the episodic memories necessary to remember one day to the next, he did pick up skills. One of my tutors told me, for example, that HM was a stunningly good table-tennis player, despite thinking that he had never played it before — years of playing his first game again and again had left their mark. Essentially, he lived a reverse Groundhog Day — the world moved on, while he went round in circles.

Back on my old blog, I posted a quotation from HM that was in one of my textbooks. I'll repost it here:

"Every day is alone in itself, whatever enjoyment I've had, and whatever sorrow I've had...

Right now, I'm wondering. Have I done or said anything amiss? You, see at this moment, everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before?

That's what worries me.

It's like waking from a dream; I just don't remember."

Well, if Dory's words back in this post were sad, that should have you bawling. HM was isolated from the world in a way that we can't imagine, unable to form any lasting relationships, and presumably aware every day that all he was experiencing was about to ebb out of his mind, never to return. Even though he was famous (albeit among a very specific section of the population), he remained anonymous to all those who knew about him, known to us all just by his initials.

On the 2nd of December last year, Henry Gustav Molaison died of respiratory failure in a nursing home in Connecticut. I didn't know his name or see his picture until after his death, but even so, I wish I'd met him. He contributed enormously, without knowing he was doing it, to one of the most fascinating and important branches of science affecting us today, and he lived one of the most difficult lives imaginable, by all accounts in a gracious and polite way.

Wherever he is now, I hope Henry is remembering everything that happened to him, all the people he ever saw, and all the ways he was able to make a difference.

And I hope he's playing a mean game of table tennis.

Continue Reading...

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Why are pink fluffy hearts romantic, anyway? Surely that would be a sign of some really horrible heart condition?

So once again it's February 14th, the day originally named forone or more early Christians whose only known action was to die horribly at the hands of the Romans. It's not clear exactly why this has anything to do with sending someone a card with a huge pink fluffy heart and/or teddy bear on it, although Wikipedia (that fount of all knowledge) suggests that the celebration of love was one of the festivals of the early Britons, built on by the Church. If that's the case, then the Church has done a singularly bad job at putting any kind of Christian message into the occasion. When Clinton's Cards are more enthusiastic about a Saint's Day than the Church is, you know something's gone wrong.

In so far as it's possible to call something a tradition when you've only done it twice, it's traditional on this day for me to post a song that is thought to be about love, but which may well have some rather hidden depths. Although I may be mellowing a little in terms of the depth of cynicism I have for Valentine's Day, let's go right ahead with it anyway. This is the very popular "Bohemian Like You" by the Dandy Warhols.

"Nothing wrong with that," you might say. "After all, doesn't he say that he likes this girl? Repeatedly? Throughout the entire chorus?" And yes, he does.

But now have a look at the end of the bridge.

...oh, you broke up? That's too bad,
I guess it's fair, if he always pays the rent,
And he doesn't get bent about sleeping on the couch when I'm there...
Hold up a second. So this other guy has now broken up with his girlfriend, but they were living together at the time and he hasn't moved out yet? Fair enough, I suppose — it's a believable scenario — but he only has to sleep on the couch when the singing guy with the questionable haircut is staying over? So he's still sleeping in the same bed as his ex at all other times? What kind of relationship is this?

It gets worse when we hit the second bridge, just before the last chorus.
It's you that I want, so please,
Just a casual, casual, easy thing,
It isn't? It is for me!
Good grief, dude. You've told this girl over and over that you like her (eight times by this point), and now you're surprised when she thinks you're in it for the long haul? If you were actually just coming on to her because you thought she was cute and you wanted a one-night stand (and if you did, this song is already way outside the boundaries of any kind of relationship that anyone should be involved with), then why on earth didn't you tell her that?

OK, enough of the extremely skeezy Rolling Stones rip-offs. If we're going to have Valentine's Day at all, we may as well go for the good parts. So here's the reverse, a song that seems to be about heartbreak and pain, but which reveals a love beneath the surface that meant a whole lot more. This is "Dirty Girl" by Eels.

Happy Valentine's Day.
Videos copyright of their respective owners, and not covered under this blog's CC licence.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

So you'll be an Austrian nobleman, commissioning a symphony in C

One of the reasons I like having easy access to central London is that in a city this size, you'll always find a whole bunch of shops that would have real difficulty surviving elsewhere. What's more, the modular way London has developed (it's really just a collection of villages and small towns smooshed together into one gigantic whole) means that you're very likely to find entire streets that are heavily weighted towards one type of shop.

For example, Rupert Street and Berwick Street in Soho (they're end to end, so are effectively the same road) are packed to the gills with little record shops. I've spent a happy few hours in Cheapo Cheapo Records, poking through shelves full of CDs where I recognised maybe one in ten of the bands, and choosing music based entirely on whether I liked the name of the album. (Current front-runner: Hellogoodbye's Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!)

Go into any of these shops and you'll find a mind-numbing array of musical genres. Find a specialist shop for one of these, and it gets even more complicated; Wikipedia lists thirty different varieties of metal, twenty-eight of punk, twenty of country, the list goes on. Mix in all the types of music that isn't sold in these shops at all (the various flavours of classical, music-hall, opera etc.) and it just gets ridiculous.

However, I reckon that these splits boil down, in the end, to just one major difference, and it's not necessarily one that you'd expect. Rather than splitting the genres based on the types of instrument that are played, or by the age of the music, I think the best way to look at it is the underlying philosophy of the song's composer, and what they thought of the relationship between musician and audience.

Let's go back as early as we can to look into this more. In the Bible's Old Testament (which is pretty darned early), music is found in two places — people's homes and workplaces, and in worship. Even then, worship music is an extension of that found in the home — people wanted to express their love for God in many ways, so they took the things that meant the most towards them and deeply moved them, and turned them towards praising Him. In that way, music comes up from the people as a whole. Even when there are specific Temple musicians leading the people, everyone's joining in, in a many-to-many interaction. Let's call this the bottom-up model of music.

Even in the Old Testament, though, we see parts of the other model. In 1 Samuel 16, King Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit (from the Lord, apparently – there's an entire theological debate to be had in that verse alone, but it's one that we are emphatically not having here), and he gets David to come and play the harp for him, to soothe his mind. Here we have a one-to-one interaction: Saul isn't taking any part in the music, he's just listening to David. David is, essentially, the first court musician, someone employed by the rich and powerful to play music for a select group who do not themselves participate. This is the top-down model.

OK, getting both of those out of the first few books of the bible is maybe a bit of a stretch, but both models have definitely been in place throughout history. By the time we reach mediaeval times, there's a definite split. People in their communities create their own music for participation, and the composers and musicians are a part of the community. In the houses of the rich and powerful, however, musicians tend to be employed. As such, they are explicitly not part of the community. What's more, because the music they play is also bought (or commissioned), it tends to be created by a single person, then propagated out by the musicians to a non-participatory audience — one-to-many. Once again, it's coming from the top down.

Fast forward to the present day, and we can still divide musical genres into these two models. In a classical concert, the music has been created by a single person. It's played by a large (and therefore anonymous) group of musicians, who are controlled by a single, powerful figure (the conductor) and have little opportunity to put something of themselves into the performance besides competence. And the audience is generally not going to do much more than sit there. I'm not saying that it's going to be bad music — the audience may well be enjoying it tremendously – but they are definitely in a passive position of receiving the music rather than joining in.

In a rock gig, on the other hand, the composer is often one of the musicians, all of the musicians will have defined, unique and visible roles, they'll be facing the audience rather than a conductor, and the audience itself will be jumping around a lot more. One more thing — rock musicians very rarely play from music at a gig, whereas classical musicians generally do. The implied message is that the rockers are actively encouraged to improvise bits, to put their own spin on the song, and to just rock out, dude. This often results in a much messier performance, but that's the whole idea.

If you start looking at music with these models in mind, you end up splitting the genres in unexpected ways. For example, folk music may look and sound completely different to speed metal, but both are bottom-up. And a comedy-oriented post-punk band like They Might Be Giants might share certain similarities with Tom Lehrer's comic songs, but Lehrer is firmly in the music-hall tradition, which is top-down.

Although the two models are very different, there's not usually any conflict between them because they tend to be found in very different venues. However, there's one place where the two clash on a regular basis, and it's one that brings us full circle: the church. The heated (not to say vitriolic) disputes between those who want traditional organ music to accompany church services, and those who want contemporary guitar-based tunes, has very little to do with the choice of instrument and everything to do with the model of worship that people want.

A church organ is pretty much the only instrument that can't cross the divide between top-down and bottom-up. "Classical" instruments do it all the time (the trumpet is just as comfortable in a marching band as it is in a jazz quartet), but playing an organ is necessarily an isolating activity, and hence they don't work well with other instruments, making them necessarily top-down. And that makes them the perfect choice for those who see worship as something that is led from the front, handed down from on high. Making up a band from the congregation, on the other hand, where people bring along their own instruments and lead from the floor, is the natural extension of the idea that worship comes up from the people and is expressed in their way.

I'm not going to suggest that either model is in any way better (although you can probably guess which way my preferences go, given that I was reading the Guardian at lunchtime today and I'm currently listening to The Who). But it is an interesting way of looking at something that's not only been of immense importance to humanity ever since humanity was first...well, human, but is also an integral part of the world around us. Music's a powerful thing, a shortcut to our memories and emotions — it's worth thinking about to see how much of our society is tied up in it.

Continue Reading...

Monday, 26 January 2009

The next track was "Dust of Ages" by Eels. Just as appropriate, in its own strange way...

I was in London yesterday (well, technically not "yesterday" now that it's past midnight, but you know what I mean), and I happened to stumble across the Stop the War Coalition protest against the Israeli occupation of Gaza.
You might think it's tricky to "stumble across" a major protest, but this is London, where practically anything can happen and no-one will bat an eyelid. In this case, my first hint that something was going on was the helicopter hovering over the middle of the city. The second was when I came up to Trafalgar Square and noticed quite how many police were around. It seemed that I'd turned up just as the protest reached the Square.

I always find big gatherings like this fascinating. Even if you don't support them (and there's no way I'm going to try and take sides over this one – let's just say that no war is ever a good thing, and that no matter who wins, civilians always lose), the fact that so many people feel so strongly about some issue that they're prepared to take to the streets is always reason enough to hang about for a bit and see what you can see. Especially given that I didn't look out of place (no huge Israeli flag sewn onto my coat or anything), so I could mingle largely unnoticed.

It was a pretty normal protest, really. Incoherent chanting of slogans that distil a complex multi-faceted problem into a few syllables, stony-faced police standing around looking vaguely menacing (although I have to say, I didn't see any police doing anything but a thoroughly professional job when confronted by several thousand angry and emotional people), and of course a bunch of people who were taking advantage of the fact that someone was protesting about something to push their own agenda. The Socialist Worker Party was out in force, as were the people who jump on every criticism of the BBC in order to complain about the licence fee.

In fact, the only things I found disturbing were, first, the slogan on the banner in the photo directly above ("Movement for Justice: By Any Means Necessary", which sounds disturbingly like "the ends justify the means"), and secondly, the absolutely atrocious poetic slogan I saw on a woman's sign. The sign was on lurid pink cardboard, which didn't photograph at all well, so I'll simply reproduce it here:

Mr Brown
Hope you drown
In your shame
Cause you're
OK, I get the general feeling, but in my experience the insult "lame" tends to be directed at people who are just slightly gooberish, not at war criminals. Which means that as a protest slogan, it fails on pretty much every level – it sacrifices making sense so that it rhymes, it doesn't scan at all, it peaks far too soon and it fizzles out with a playground insult. If you're reading this, woman with lurid pink sign – seriously, spend a bit more time on your protest posters.

One more thing to say before I leave the whole issue here and move on to less politically-charged topics: I had my headphones on at the time, with my music collection on shuffle. The song that came on as I was looking out over the crowds was the Hot Club of Cowtown's performance of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love"; I leave you with a snippet of the lyrics that seemed to appropriately (if unrealistically) sum up my hopes for this extremely troubled part of the world.
I can't give you anything but love, baby
That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby
Dream a while, scheme a while, you're sure to find
Happiness, and I guess, all the things you've always dreamed of...

Continue Reading...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

PS. Please don't make Joe the Plumber your Secretary of State.

Quick follow-up to my previous post — never let it be said that I fail to give all sides equal time in a debate. Had John McCain won the election, I would have written a message for him as well. Not in the form of a song, but a message nonetheless. It would have looked something like this.

Dear President McCain,

Please, for the love of all that is good, don't die.

Yours sincerely,

Continue Reading...

Monday, 19 January 2009

No, I will not sing it for you.

Tomorrow, the 44th President of the United States will be inaugurated in Washington, DC. Pretty much all that I know about American politics has been gleaned from episodes of The West Wing and clips of The Daily Show, so my impression of the corridors of power is probably a little off-kilter (I imagine that everyone's beautiful, devastatingly intelligent, deeply moral and absolutely hilarious). But I have managed to get a good sense of the amazing wave of popular support that has carried Barack Obama into the most powerful position in the world.

That's a good thing. After eight years in which we've seen the erosion of civil liberties, an arrogant disregard for the checks and balances that are supposed to keep the powerful accountable, a total economic meltdown and considerably higher levels of terrorist activity than there were in 2000, a bit of optimism can only be a positive influence. Some have thought that there's a danger in going too far. Already people – including Obama himself – are starting to try to scale back the "Superman" image that he's gained.

Well, screw that. Finally we have someone in power with enough support and popular enthusiasm to effect massive sweeping changes in all areas, and we're going to tell everyone that he should take things slowly and carefully, take one day at a time? If you shoot for high targets, you might miss them, but that's a much better idea than settling for the just about acceptable.

There's no real way that I can put this in prose, so I'm going to do something I do very rarely – I'm going to give you a song. Not performed, unfortunately, because I'm rubbish at writing music. But, because this song is (like everything else on this blog) CC-licensed, if anyone reading this wants to have a shot at a tune, go right ahead. Oh, and I wrote it just after the election, hence the complete lack of any mention of Gaza. So anyway, I now present to you...

Please, Mr Obama
A song by Phil

[Intro - slowly and in loose rhythm]
The election is over
The votes are all in
Your administration is soon to begin
These eight long years we've been
At the end of our rope
But now we are seeing a glimmer of hope
To bring about change
You've got to go a long way
And so I have got this one thing to say...

[Verses - much perkier tune, jangly rhythm]
Please, Mr Obama, don't screw it up now
The last guy did so many things you just can't allow
Shut down the secret prisons of the CIA
Make sure you ban torture - and by the way
Send Bush and Cheney off to Camp X-Raaaaaaay [hold long note]
About a week before you close it down
Oh please, Mr Obama, don't screw it up now

Please, Mr Obama, keep to your word
Carry out your promises, don't ever be deterred
Get jobs for all who want to be employed
Give free healthcare to every girl and boy
Make 'em proud back in Illinoiiiiiiiiis
For politicians this might be absurd
But please, Mr Obama, keep to your word

Please, Mr Obama, keep the peace
Do everything you can to make the violence decrease
There's war in Iraq, we're not sure 'bout Iran
Full-blown anarchy in Afghanistan
And let's not forget the DRC and Sudaaaaaaaaaaan
But we believe miracles never cease,
So please, Mr Obama, will you keep the peace

Please, Mr Obama, keep the Union strong
Don't back down when half of Congress thinks you're wrong
Lose the bad policies of yesterday,
Turn the country round 'til it's going the right way
Make the world proud of the US of AAAAAAAA
Although they won't always get along,
Please, Mr Obama, keep the Union strong

[Outro - slow once again]
You've got four years
And maybe even eight
It's not all that much but you can make it great

So much to do
So face it with a smile
And don't let Sarah Palin within twenty miiiiiles...

[Coda, perky again]
I'm so glad America decided to select
You as its brand-new President-Elect
But please, Mr Obama, don't screw it up nowwwwwwww!

Of course, the next question is, how on earth are people going to write protest songs for the next four years?

Continue Reading...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

I will call him Squishy and he will be mine, and he will be my Squishy.

Ahem. I'm aware that rather a lot of recent posts have opened with an apology for not posting enough, and leaving a month since the last one is something of a record. So, sorry. But hey, it's the Internet, where the vast majority of people who ever read this will be doing so by reaching it through a Google search for something hopelessly vague, several months after I post it. (The number who get here by Googling something like "hypothesis on beauty" is remarkably high.)

We're well out of the Christmas season, and into what certain members of my family term "Winterval", which is essentially an excuse to have open fires every night until Easter and watch old episodes of The West Wing. Not that I'd usually be complaining about this, but as it happens this is the first year since Winterval was founded that I've been living in a completely different city, and I am therefore going to have to console myself with fake open fires and episodes of CSI.

What was I talking about? Oh, yes, Christmas. My younger sister (notable on these pages for her slightly snarky comments recently) received the Pixar box set for Christmas, which has meant that the whole family has been basking in what are pretty much the only good animated films that Disney has released for about the last 12 years. They're also some of the only ones with original stories, Disney having exhausted their stock of family-friendly fairy tales some time ago. However, just because they have new stories, that doesn't mean that they can't use Disney's oldest and best-used storytelling trope: deeply broken families and desperate tragedy.

That might seem strange. Disney films are explicitly aimed at children, after all, and they do have something of a reputation for being saccharine and schmaltzy. However, that's only ever the case towards the end of the film as the happy resolution is approaching. Looking only at the opening premise, the number of on-screen families where something is badly wrong is just astounding. Here's a relatively recent selection.

Film (Year)Setup
The Little Mermaid (1989)Ariel's mother doesn't appear throughout the movie. That said, maybe mermaids reproduce like fish and Ariel is one of five million offspring of King Triton. Who knows?
Beauty and the Beast (1991)Belle's mother is not only absent, she's never even mentioned. And although the Beast clearly has rather more pressing problems than just having no family, he apparently has no living parents either.
Aladdin (1992)Aladdin is an orphan, and Princess Jasmine has – you guessed it – no mother either.
The Lion King (1994)Mufasa and Sarabi may be a happy pair of lions at the beginning of the movie, but it's not long before Mufasa is being trampled to death in an unusually shocking scene. I don't recall corpses of major characters being shown in any other Disney film, even if Mufasa's looks rather less buffalo-trampled than you might expect.
Pocahontas (1995)Oh, this is getting ridiculous. Guess who's dead as this movie opens? Yep, Pocahontas's mother.
Toy Story (1995)Now we're into Pixar territory, with the world's first CGI feature film. And things have changed enormously. Yes, this time it's Andy's father who is conspicuous by his absence.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. So with that context, let's have a closer look at the extremely impressive 2003 Pixar effort, Finding Nemo. Nemo, our little clown fish hero, is not only without a mother (who, predictably, dies horribly in the film's opening scene), he's also disabled. Oh, and he lives inside an anemone to protect him from the thousands of fish who want to eat him. Life's hard for him from the word go. Marlin, his father, has some deep-seated emotional issues that manifest in extreme over-protectiveness. And then we have Dory.

Dory is definitely my favourite character in this film. She gets some of the best lines, including the whole "you can speak WHALE?" scene (Ellen DeGeneres voices her superbly, by the way) and the way the script deals with the character's short-term memory loss is hilarious without laughing at the medical condition itself. Well, not too much, anyway.

Dory's hilarity, though, distracts from the fact that her situation is terribly sad. We get that the first time we meet her, with the line "No, it's true, I forget things almost instantly. It runs in my family. Well...at least, I think it does. Umm..hmm. Where are they?" In a way, that's worse than the way the above-mentioned characters have lost one or more members of their family. If they had simply died, Dory could find a way to cope with that (even if, like Marlin, it's a very bad way). However, she knows they're somewhere out there in the ocean, but has no idea where. Her memory loss cuts her off in a very fundamental way from everyone around her. (More on that in a later post.)

It's towards the end of the film that we get the worst part. It's the low point for the main characters anyway: Marlin has just seen what he thinks is Nemo's dead body and is slowly heading home, defeated. Dory can't bear to see him go, and pleads with him not to leave her:
"Please don't go away. Please? No one's ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave... if you leave... I just, I remember things better with you. I do, look. P. Sherman, forty-two... forty-two... I remember it, I do. It's there, I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And-and I look at you, and I... and I'm home. Please... I don't want that to go away. I don't want to forget."
For my money, that's pretty close to the saddest thing any character says in any Disney film. Dory has finally found a way of tenuously re-connecting herself to a world that she has effectively lost (the mention of "home", connected with the earlier revelation that Dory has no idea where her home actually is, serves as a particularly effective twist of the knife), and now that's disappearing, literally in front of her eyes. And Marlin – possibly understandably at this point – does absolutely nothing to help.

One of the reasons why Disney movies have passed into film legend – and particularly why pretty much all the Pixars have – is that they end well. Unlike Steve Spielberg, who clearly has some horrible mental illness that causes him to add between ten and thirty completely unnecessary minutes to the end of every film he directs, Disney directors know that they have to wrap up all the loose ends in a happy and fulfilling way, ideally taking us back to the situation we saw at the start to show how it's changed, and then just stop. So in Beauty and the Beast, the final shot is in the same stained-glass style that we saw in the prologue, The Lion King ends with Rafiki holding up Simba's daughter on Pride Rock in the same way that he held Simba in the opening scene, and Finding Nemo closes with Marlin chivvying Nemo off to school, in a neat role reversal from a similar scene near the beginning.

I think that's why Disney gets away with putting so much tragedy into their films. Kids watching them may be scared at the appropriate points (I knew someone who, at the age of 18, was still unable to watch Mufasa's death in The Lion King without crying), but they know that when they reach the end, the villain will have received his suitably violent and frequently deliciously ironic comeuppance, the comic relief will be heading off into the sunset to do something wacky and/or zany, and the guy will get the girl. It's a simple formula, but one that works, and that nearly guarantees a good story.

Oh, and most importantly, they all live happily ever after.

Continue Reading...