Monday, 30 July 2012

Treat those impostors both the same

Lots of fun at the Olympic fencing this evening - I take one evening off and the whole competition falls apart… just like life. The sooner you people accept my (largely) benevolent dictatorship, the better. You have nothing to lose except your Top Gear DVDs, hipster glasses and elasticated trouser cuffs.



The excitement this evening came at the end of Shin v Heidemann women's epee semi-final. After a clearly rather defensive fight which went into extra time at 5-5 (you win by scoring 15 and have 9 minutes in which to do it), Shin needed to hold Heidemann off for one minute, having won the toss for priority. Whoever scored in that minute won: no score and the win goes to Shin. She thought she'd got it - but the clock was reset to 1 second left and Heidemann managed a hit. Shin then burst into tears and quite rightly stayed in the arena - under the gaze of 27 cameras and 8000 people - for nigh on an hour while her team appealed the decision, before going on to lose the bronze medal fight too.

Photo: Hannah Johnston


It all looks very dramatic, and it is. But I thought that I'd explain what the day is like for an Olympic fencer, as I'm backstage helping to look after them.

They turn up with their team mates, coaches and sparring partners. The first place they go is the training hall, where they've booked pistes by country for sparring and lessons: it's open 24 hours per day. Then it's into the pre-warm up room. This is where the tension really builds. It's a big room with a lot of metal pistes set out, and TV screens showing the action out on the field of play. Fencers from every country are there. Some take lessons, some obsessively practice a single move, some wander round chatting to their team-mates or to rivals - they're all on the World Cup circuit and know each other well. Which doesn't necessarily mean that they like each other. Nobody does anything complicated: a few minutes before an Olympic match is not the time to try a new move.

Everybody looks very cool. Despite the kit being essentially identical, they find ways to show off their muscles, to lope around looking invincible or relaxed. Like most top sports people, massive earphones are de rigeur at the moment. I can also exclusively reveal that under the fencing kit, the Brazilians wear bright yellow and green patriotic underpants (over their Brazilians, one might say): stripping down to your undercrackers either demonstrates how unconcerned or how ripped one is.

After the pre-warm up room, the athlete is escorted into the warm-up area. S/he's allowed a coach and one sparring partner with them - no team-mates, masseurs or anyone else. They're reunited with the weapons which have been checked for faults and legality (they even get x-rayed for microscopic flaws). The atmosphere is quiet and thoughtful - no whooping and shouting. There are attendants (people like me) in there to help but we're under orders no to speak to the fencers unless they address us - this is where they get into 'the zone'. After 20 minutes, it's into the Wireless room to be fitted with the (obviously) wireless scoring equipment which sends signals to the central computer and lights up the fencer's mask when s/he scores. After that, they're into the Call Room. This is where the terror sets in. The only people in there are the fencers - staring into each other's eyes - and a coach each. It's a small, very bare room and there's nowhere to hide and nothing else to do. When the teams are in there, the atmosphere is utterly electric. After a few minutes, they're escorted onto the piste, announced over the PA system and the world suddenly becomes a very, very lonely place. The winner faces a 2 or 4 hour break (after the drug test and media appearances) before the whole thing starts again: the loser is escorted out to face his or her coaches, team-mates and friends.

Kipling's 'If…' tells us that 'If you meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those impostors just the same… Yours is the Earth and everything in it / And, which is more, you'll be a Man, my Son!'. It's an illiterate piece of doggerel, which epitomises an approach which is entirely antithetical to the kind of pressure these athletes are under. Shin's reaction was extreme, but entirely understandable. I don't know what happened with the timing reset, but to her, a potential gold medal in the sport's biggest event suddenly became fourth, which is basically nothing, whatever Kipling says. She had a (defensive) plan, it had paid off, and suddenly something outside her control had snatched it all away. I can't say I know how she feels: I always expect to lose so don't take it hard when I inevitably do (and obviously I've never approached these heights), but I do empathise. Or rather sympathise: sudden defeat is always exciting (I've taken plenty of evocative pictures such as this one, this one, and my favourite one), but most of us will never understand what a massive blow it is. I've never competed at this level because I don't have the ruthlessness and drive to push myself and destroy an opponent - but neither will I ever have to suffer the agonies of just - or unjust - defeat. It's bad enough when a ref can't spot my second-intention attacks at the Shropshire Closed: an Olympic defeat is beyond my emotional range. We'll forget about it after one day - but this 1 second might end, or at least damage, Shin's career. Not because she's done anything wrong, but because of the psychological blow inflicted by the sudden reversal of fortune.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Going for gold

Good evening, gentle readers. For this week-and-a-bit only, I'm blogging 'on location', namely my delightful cousins' delightful home while I do my bit at the Olympic fencing event. The cousins are hilarious, and very glamorous… clearly my side of the family got the end-of-season chromosomes. Most of my siblings have lived with them for extended periods… like Blitz kids being evacuated for feeding up and mental recovery. True to form I got back today and found my sister swigging Pimms in the back garden. Also in the garden is a flock of wild London parakeets, which are fascinating - gregarious, quarrelsome and flashy. Like my family, in fact.

As to the Olympics… It's a funny mix of incredible ceremony and familiarity: take away the uniforms, formality and security, and it's a fairly small competition - no more than 64 per day and no seeding rounds. In theory very little will go wrong. Though of course fencers wander off, technology fails, referees make wrong calls and coaches lose their tempers. Which is all part of the fun. Being backstage is brilliant - most of us officials know each other and a lot of the fencers, so there's a kind of village atmosphere, only with massive amounts of added tension. It's fantastic to wander through the pre-warm up area and see my fencing heroes getting lessons or having sparring fights. I'm certainly trying to memorise nifty little moves to practice at home.

Today was the women's individual foil competition. People moan about the women's game - they reckon the quality's not there, or the aggression, but I like it: it's slower but they put more thought into it. On today's evidence, we're both right: lots of matches ran out of time with low scores on the board, but there were loads of great strategic fights. For the UK fans: sadly two of the three British women fought each other in the first round, and the third lost at the same stage. The big news of the day was all-conquering Italian Valentina Vezzali only claiming bronze this time - beaten by two other Italians.

It's a cruel format. In previous years, fencers fought a seeding round, so they'd get a few fights before the direct elimination stage. These days, you get one 15 point fight, lasting up to 9 minutes (not often reached). Lose and your Olympics is over. In the case of the sabre, your Olympic career might last no more than a minute. No wonder it's tense out there.

All the things people moaned about actually worked out fine - transport (though admittedly I was up and out before 6 a.m.), the weather, security (hilarious hearing the army relentlessly teasing the G4S lot) and crowding. Still not impressed by the uniform mind. I keep expecting to be asked to mop up a spillage in Aisle 3. Some great photos from various sports here, including the fencing.

I suppose I should mention the opening ceremony, not that I can add anything to the superlatives offered by everybody else. I could have done with a little less militarism, but it had something to offer everybody. I loved the references to the industrial revolution, the suffragists and union movements and especially to the NHS. Very pleased that Danny Boyle took government money to put on an essentially anti-Tory pageant. Loved most of the music and cultural references (no Smiths or Dr Who though), and fantasised about Mark E Smith lighting the torch. Ah well - the whole thing was a triumph. I was particularly pleased by Shami Chakrabarti's role in carrying the flag. In a perfect world, she'd be dictator for life. The fact that the usual bunch of reactionaries hated it (Nazi-partying Aidan Burley, Toby Young, the Daily Mail) was simply proof that Danny Boyle (living proof of the quality of Bangor University's English degree) had pitched it just right. Slightly weird, warm-hearted and imaginative.

Right, time for bed - another very long day tomorrow, though hopefully easier now we know what to expect.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Au revoir, mes enfants, au revoir

Right, dear readers, it's time for me to shut down the computer and toddle off to That London to play my small part in the Olympics. If you meet a fat man dressed as a plum and being sarcastic, give the password (Plashing Vole) and you'll receive some exclusive Live Blogging.

I'll probably post something most days (Vole's Olympic Diary?) but opportunities will be limited. I'll miss you all terribly, of course.

As a parting gift, some musical treats from my vaults. We'll kick off with the 1983 classic 'If I Were Sebastian Coe' by Shay Healy.



As I'll be dependent on London Transport for the next few days, Flanders and Swann's 'A Transport of Delight' seems entirely appropriate. GNAC wrote one called 'Uncomfortable Modes of Transport' but it's instrumental and too relaxed for the subject. I'd also really like to post The Last Poets' 'Sport', but it's not online! Astonishing. Puts the Olympics into perspective.



Can't talk about winning and losing without Pavement's 'Winner of the':



Early 1980s Tom Paxton has something to say about the Olympics: 'Be A Sport, Afghanistan':



As do Orange Juice: 'Moscow Olympics':



More tenuously: Hole's 'Olympia' (named after the American town, not the Games):



I would have posted Monograph's 'Gallant Losers' for the GB fencing team but that's not on the internet either. Have Th' Faith Healers' 'My Loser' Instead:



Bye all!

With friends like these…

One of the problems with multinational online retailers' algorithms is that they've got no sense of humour. I use - when unavoidable - the most famous books-and-everything store. It remembers what I've looked at. So when friends (i.e. Emma) 'humorously' recommend things they know I'll hate, such as this:


then my browsing history of expensive camera lenses I can't afford, books like Cartwright's How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (a vole can dream) and odd SF suddenly gets filled with recommendations like this:


which really isn't my thing. Reminds me of the time a kind person sent me a copy of Katie Price's Perfect Ponies. (Review: horseshit, dogfood, to the knackers' yard with it).

Going for gold

Right, that's quite enough of the Mountain Lion dictation nonsense. I tried it with an academic book, with which it coped quite well except for the punctuation - it even managed to get 'proto-colonialist' right, but I still find I can type faster than I can speak in the patronising 'Englishman-to-foreign-Johnny' manner required to get it to comprehend me.

Plan for the day? Sort out some odds and ends at work, including some research and typing up notes from a Grievance meeting I attended yesterday as a union rep, pack some clothes, books and the office (Mac, HDD, camera, chargers, lenses, accessories) and high tail it down to That London ready to wear polyester and smile a lot at the Olympics. The eternal question of course is which books to bring. Will I be too tired to read Proper Academic Books? How many? I have a horror of running out of reading material. I seem to have acquired a lot of fun books this week: the new Adam Roberts, Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde, Eoin Colfer, M. John Harrison etc. I've just finished David Peace's Nineteen Eighty Three, which was dark, disturbing, stylistically chewy and utterly horrific. So I either need something to contiue that mood or a complete palate cleanser. Perhaps a great big Trollope (and something to read afterwards. Boom). Any suggestions?

Mounting a Lion

This morning I'm trying to use the new Mac OSx dictation software. Any errors are therefore the responsibility of Apple Macintosh and the rotting ports of Steve jobs. I didn't say the rotting ports except the rotting ports know I said the boxing courts oh for gods sake this is getting ridiculous outcome I expected to bumped about the state of the world stoke city and lo-fi indie music is bloody piece of software cannot understand a simple clear distinct accent. You can't even understand me when I tried to say the word courts meaning the body of that body of Steve jobs. God knows how this machine would cope with the absence of my friends from Stoke Terry Limerick and all points west. Colts Colts Colts Colts. Dammit I'm trying to refer to the Cadabra of Steve Jones. No, the dead body of Steve jobs which deserves desecrating for this awful awful piece of software. What if I tried American accent? Clearly some improvement when I tried crystal from Dallas.

Computer says no.

A small prize to anyone who can decipher what I was actually trying to say in the above paragraph.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

??? This is STILL OK?

Another post, another trip back in time.

I like Private Eye, though more for the investigative journalism than the rather tired jokes. They nailed the heart surgery scandal and numerous corporate tax evaders. But I'm struggling to find an interpretation of this which isn't just plain racist. Anyone?


Andy Coulson's lucky break

Got a letter today, dated 8th July 2012. Forwarded from the house I lived in four years ago.


Oh right. Interesting.

I phone the Jury Summoning Service. Very nice lady answers. 'Hello', I say. 'A couple of problems. Firstly, you used an old address. Don't you get jurors from the electoral roll?' 'Well', she said, 'we get them from the local authority, and they don't bother updating most lists. What's your juror number?'

I tell her. 

'Oh, she said. You're not on our system. In fact, your juror number is associated with a lady named Marilyn'. 

'OK then', say I. 'Next problem. You're calling me for jury service 9 years ago. I did do jury service in 2003, and don't want to go back'. 

'That's a printer error', she said. 

Eh? Really?

So I'm not down to do jury service. Which is a shame, as I was really looking forward to sitting in judgement on Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks or Jack Straw in his surely upcoming trial for war crimes. 

Still, top quality work from the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. 

Pop culture and politics

If you're a regular reader, you'll be familiar with my contention that Back to the Future is a left-liberal critique of Reagan's America, though it's let down by a very dubious racial politics (white kid goes back in time to teach black musicians rock and roll - really?).

I turn to another pop culture classic whenever I think about the media, bankers, capitalism and the economy - Gremlins II, The New Batch. The original Gremlins was of course a satire on adolescence, but the sequel is a whip smart take on Big Media, yuppies, venal politicians and New York in general. it could be modelled on Murdoch and Co.

Here's a rather delightful scene set in the New York Stock Exchange. As we learn today that the Tories have managed to shrink the economy yet again, it seems somehow appropriate.



Other than that, this is my favourite scene. How many kids' films manage to shoehorn in a reference to Susan Sontag?

Olympic shenanigans

Obviously I don't care a jot if one set of capitalist annoy another set of capitalists by infringing their stupid copyrights. But this attempt amused me. Send in your examples of Olympic nonsense and I'll post them too.


50 Shades… fewer words.


(Sorry about the formatting: Blogger seems to have broken).

Lots of people are pointing out that 50 Shades of Grey is utterly repetitive.

Here's a Wordle highlighting the word frequency. Note for porn fans: not much of the vocab you'd be after there. Looks like bog standard romance to me. 

Wordle: 50 Shades


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Compare and contrast…

I've spent the last couple of days fantasising about inappropriate film remakes. Then Shackleford Hurtmore tells me that there's a Hollywood remake of School for Scoundrels.

As a way of proving Hollywood's artistic, political and cultural bankruptcy, here's the tennis match scene from the British original and the trailer for the modern American remake.





Let the bombing commence.

And because I can, here's the Cuban Boys' song sampling the original film's dialogue:

Börk börk börk

Where did it all go wrong for the inhabitants of the British Isles? It's tempting, of course, to blame the Romans. No Romans, no withdrawal, no Anglo-Saxons (to use an ahistorical term), no English, no Normans, no Christianity, no Reformation, no Counter-Reformation, no monarchy, no capitalism, no massacres in Ireland, no Troubles, no Partition, no Bonnie Langford. Though who's to say pan-Celticism wouldn't have been equally bloody and hierarchical? But at least we'd be sacrificing horses and painting ourselves blue and being an altar boy would have been a lot more fun and would have featured a lot less sexual abuse.

But to pick a more recent date, I'm going to plump for 1066. But not the 1066 you're thinking of. Not Harold's defeat of 14th October 1066. I'm no Anglo-Saxon cheerleader (not when my name's as Irish as Tarquin Twistleton-Twistleton-Smythe is English. In fact, British and Irish history took a terrible turn for the worse three weeks before, on 25th September 1066, in the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. It was Harold's fault yet again. He marched north to defeat the Viking, Harald Hardrada in a stunning feat of arms.

The bloody fool. OK, a Hardrada victory would have meant violently thinning the ranks of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish aristocracy, but as the Monty Python peasants demonstrate, the identity of the oppressors means very little in daily life. The native and English languages may have died out - though the Normans didn't impose English on everyone: there weren't enough of them. Eating raw herring may have become popular - ugh. But in the long run, and setting aside the occasional human sacrifice and rollmop orgy, the British Viking Territories would have ended up as earthly paradises. We'd all be tall, slim, handsome, stylish bicycle riders. None of energies would have gone into invading other countries or resisting being invaded by the English. There'd be a Noma on every street corner, a sauna in every basement and a yacht each. our public services would be properly funded, Philip Green wouldn't have dared to show his face, cities would be pedestrian friendly, the streets would be free from vomit and government would be friendly, responsive and practical. No parading round the world waving nuclear missiles in people's faces, no scuttling off to do whatever Washington wanted - just calm, relaxed, thoughtful, slightly dull neutral democracy. We'd live in stylish, cool flats furnished with lovely minimalist furniture. We wouldn't have Hollyoaks and Police Camera Action: we'd have The Killing and Borgen and The Moomins on at prime-time. No Jamie Oliver: we'd have the Swedish Chef.


Look what we could have won

I've a good mind to dig up Harold and give him a well-deserved kicking. I'm starting a petition to ask Norway to annexe the UK and Ireland (we'll be nice - give them an option on Norn Iron). Who's with me?

Just call me St. Francis

I met this little chap outside my office just now, looking rather distressed by the unseasonable weather (yes, it is unseasonable to get blazing sun in a British July - we've abolished seasons). In this no-something-for-nothing culture, I made him a deal: a photo shoot in return for some water. He wasn't totally obliging but I'm fairly happy with these.








Hail Shining Morn!

Listing my desires for remakes yesterday, I entirely forgot to mention this one: Sunset Boulevard, starring Jordan and Russell Kane (if I'm thinking of the right one - blond, giggles on Mock the Weak a lot). Think of it: blowsy publicity hound desperate for the attention in a post-Leveson world hooks up with pushy naïf. Starts and ends with him face down in the pool while Jordan prepares for the role of her life… as the defendant on Judge Judy or Jeremy Kyle. It writes itself, and I reckon she's got the swimming pool (if not, she can borrow Barrymore's), the creepy ex-husband butler (Alex Reid) and the cash. Adds new meaning to the line 'I am big. It's the movies that got small').



Anyway, what a day. The sun's shining and the Tories are in trouble again. To divert attention from the various scandals befalling them (including their Trade Minister Lord Green being unmasked as the linchpin of the international drugs trade), they sent out David Gauke MP to attack people who pay tradesmen in cash. It's immoral, he said, because it's tax evasion.

Fair enough. But I bet it doesn't avoid as much tax as David Cameron's family business, which existed only to collect tax breaks, Jeremy Hunt's £100,000 tax evasion, Tory adviser Philip Green's £1.3 bn tax-free trick and all their other friends like Vodafone, which was let off an £8bn bill and then didn't pay a single penny of corporation tax last year.

And there's more: it turns out that Gauke's wife is a leading tax-avoidance lawyer. And that naughty David 'flipped' his main and secondary homes during the Parliamentary expenses scandal to… avoid paying stamp duty and tax. Presumably there's some clause that defines that as 'moral'. And - David himself worked for a leading firm of 'tax advisor' lawyers.

Poachers and gamekeepers?

And if that's not all - the CPS decided to charge a pile of scumbag News International (alleged) phone hackers: Coulson, Brooks, Mulcaire and several others for - among other charges - hacking the phone of dead teen Milly Dowler.

Obviously they're innocent until/if/when convicted. So the following Doonesbury cartoon from the Nixon era has no connection with their case at all. (Click to enlarge). The same cartoon certainly has no relevance to events in Ireland yesterday either: the Quinns found guilty of plotting to hide €500m from the state they owe €3bn to, with one in prison and another on the run, and Sean FitzPatrick and a couple of his cronies arrested too for running a massively indebted bank for the benefit of his social circle. Where will the joy end?


Monday, 23 July 2012

Nic, meet Steve. You won't be sharing a cell.

Nicolas Robinson is an idiot.


He was walking home from his girlfriend's house during last summer's riots, and opportunistically stole £3.50's worth of bottled water from a store which had been trashed. He was arrested and imprisoned for six months.


Baron Reverend Stephen Green of Hurstpierpoint is - as his titles imply - an important man. He is a member of the House of Lords. He is an ordained minister in the Church of England. He is a government minister for trade and business and he is a leading member of the Conservative Party. Here he is, plugging his book Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World 
Turning to the current economic crisis, Green said that "the breakdown in public trust and confidence in business in general and banks in particular" had created the need for a new look at the fundamental values and objectives that motivate business. In his view, corporate social responsibility should be regarded as a core component, the "raison d'être" of a company, rather than as merely an adjunct to its "real business." 
 
In the subsequent audience Q&A, Green, an ordained minister in the Church of England, fielded a question about how he balanced his professional life with his personal beliefs. Green replied that while he did agree that "one cannot serve both God and mammon (money)," he didn't equate "working with money as worshipping or serving the money." When the topic veered towards Wall Street and the "demonization of bankers," Green mounted a spirited defense of the many decent and hardworking people he believes to be working in the financial sector.  


As plain Mr Green, he was the chairman and CEO of HSBC ('the world's local bank'), the banking and financial services conglomerate. Before that, he was the CEO of HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) S. A., one of the world's leading tax-evasion providers (very sadly, someone stole a CD listing all their clients, and the tax authorities arrested rather a large number of them), and a Director of HSBC (Mexico), very much his baby. Steve also bought the Bank of Bermuda for HSBC, a curious choice for a religious man: it only seems to trade in tax havens.


According to Senator Carl Levin, HSBC (Mexico) and the rest of the HSBC group was knowingly providing banking services to Mexican drug cartels, tyrannous dictatorships, fraudsters, smugglers and tax avoiders to the tune of several hundred billion dollars. HSBC staff knew all about it and decided to carry on. Some of them were even using armoured cars to smuggle drug money across international borders. This is a long way from the current HSBC ads depicting cute children from across the world saving their pocket money… unless the implication is that their lawn-mowing is actually the drug harvest.In one case, HSBC continued to accept cash from Sigue, which federal agents caught taking on transactions even after agents explicitly told them were the proceeds of the drug trade.


The bank moved billions of dollars in cash from its affiliate in Mexico to the US, more than any other Mexican bank, despite concerns raised by law enforcement agencies with HSBC that such sums could only involve the proceeds from dealings in illegal narcotics, the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations report said.
Some of the money that moved through HSBC was tied to Iran, the report said, which would violate U.S. prohibitions on transactions linked to it and other sanctioned countries. 
To conceal the transactions, HSBC affiliates used a method called "stripping", where references to Iran are deleted from records. HSBC affiliates also characterized the transactions as transfers between banks without disclosing the tie to Iran in what the Senate report called a "cover payment". 

Ordinarily, anyone caught processing money for drug dealers goes to prison for money laundering. HSBC was not the victim here: it made billions of dollars by knowingly moving drug and terror money from the black economy to the legitimate one. Stephen Green is in fact not a lord, government minister or bank manager. He and his colleagues are linchpins in the drug trade. Without them, it wouldn't have functioned. No wonder the HSBC ads feature the line 'understanding people and their values'. 


So where are we? Oh yes: Nicolas Robinson goes to prison for stealing a bottle of water. Stephen Green writes books about ethical markets, gets a seat in the House of Lords and a government job to add to his bloated bank account. I think we can legitimately call him a Drug Lord. As for Robinson… them's the breaks. Steal a bottle of water and that's your problem - he should have worn a tie and thought bigger. Enable a multibillion dollar drugs-and-murder empire… that's our problem.

Bradley Who?

Well done Bradley Wiggins for being the first Brit to win the Tour de France. Emma reminds me that this song - by Dermot Morgan, later famed as Father Ted - soundtracked Ireland's Stephen Roche when he won it in 1987 (alongside the World Championship and the Giro d'Italia).

Monday's Muse

An idle conversation yesterday about Hollywood's addiction to remakes led to us speculating about the few decent films which haven't been re-filmed, and who might star in them.

My vote goes to Arnie and Aniston in Casablanca (though this time the Arabs would be the enemy and the Nazis and Brits would team up to defeat the Islamists). 'Of all ze bars in ze vorld, she valks into mine. Now give me your clothes, your boots and your transit permits'. Instead of a rousing chorus of the Marseillaise in Rick's, Aniston would sing the cat song from Friends.



What else? Brief Encounter would of course be set in an American airport. After queuing for several hours to be groped by rude TSA staff, Jim Carrey - in the Trevor Howard role - would do his wobbly face thing, before going to the gents' for sex with J-Lo, the Celia Johnson de nos jours. No doubt the script would find room for some comedy animals. Perhaps an orang-utan. Instead of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 which pervades the film, Jack Black would be overseeing the soundtrack which would include some Pink, Pussycat Dolls and Bon Jovi. Rather than sorrowfully parting under the weight of their responsibilities, J-Lo calls up her girlfriends and they all run away to Acapulco together, whooping like only celluloid Americans can whoop. As they leave, Jim Carrey drops a bag of flour from the cockpit on J-Lo's husband's head (Danny Glover? Don Cheadle) and we all laugh. Roll credits. (I gather there's a Sophia Loren/Richard Burton remake which could frankly go either way).



Going the other way, I'd quite like to see a Lars von Trier remake of Carry On Up The Khyber (funny that Afghanistan doesn't seem quite so amusing these days) 't any of the Carry On Series. Bjork would make a magnificent Babs Windsor, Madonna's a natural for Hattie Jaques, while Klaus Kinski would slot perfectly into the Kenneth Williams roles. Sid James would be trickier to cast, but I reckon Christopher Ecclestone has the comedy chops to manage it. Tom Hanks would obviously replace Bernard Breslaw. We could probably find a part for Sir Kenneth of Branagh and Nicholas Cage too.

(Warning - contains white British actors playing 'comedy' Afghans).


Also bubbling under - Reese Witherspoon in Twelve Angry Blondes. Alan Carr in For A Fistful of Dollars. Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks in The Front Page or His Girl Friday and of course the cast of EastEnders in It's A Wonderful Life (in which Phil Mitchell murders Clarence in the first scene. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in Babette's Feast? Finally, A Matter of Life and Death desperately needs the talents of the cast of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.



OK, time for your suggestions. What needs remaking, and who would you cast?


Friday, 20 July 2012

It's not what you know…

I've long suspected that academic credibility is less about what you know and  more about the discourse you use to express yourself - at conferences, on paper and in lectures. Not everybody, of course, but there's certainly an academic style we have to learn. It's like joining a street gang, only instead of learning terms for crack and guns, we pick up a lingo centred on critical theory, in my field. Can't bandy about 'abjection', 'alterity' and 'Otherness'? You're not in the club then.

Imagine my joy to find that it's a measurable notion known as the plausibility effect:

In 1973 a group of academics noticed that student ratings of teachers often seemed to depend more on personality than educational content. They wanted to find out how far this effect could be stretched: what if you had an impressive, charismatic and witty lecturer, who knew nothing at all about the subject on which they were lecturing? Could plausibility alone make an audience feel satisfied that they had learned something, even if the information delivered was deliberately inconsistent, irrelevant, and even meaningless?
They hired a large, affable gentleman who “looked distinguished and sounded authoritative”. They called him “Dr Myron L Fox” and he was given a long, impressive, and fictitious CV. Dr Fox was an authority on the application of mathematics to human behaviour.
They slipped Dr Fox on to the programme at an academic conference on medical education. His audience was made up of doctors, healthcare workers, and academics. The title of his lecture was Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education. Dr Fox filled his lecture and his question and answer session with double talk, jargon, dubious neologisms, non sequiturs, and mutually contradictory statements. This was interspersed with elaborate diversions into parenthetical humour and “meaningless references to unrelated topics”. It’s the kind of education you pay good money for in the UK.
The lecture went down well. At the end, a questionnaire was distributed and every person in the audience gave significantly more favourable than unfavourable feedback. The comments were gushing, and yet thoughtful: “excellent presentation, enjoyed listening”, “good flow, seems enthusiastic”, and “too intellectual a presentation, my orientation is more pragmatic”.
The researchers repeated the performance. Time and again they got the same result: the third group consisted of 33 people on a graduate-level university educational philosophy course. Twenty-one had postgraduate qualifications. They loved it: “extremely articulate”, “good analysis of subject that has been personally studied before”, “articulate”, and “knowledgable”, they said.

It's worse online: we ban Wikipedia for students not because the content is poor (sometimes it's excellent) but because our students don't yet have the critical ability to spot the difference between reliably good content and authoritative-sounding content. Anyone, once they've learned the code, can sound like an expert.

I had a long-running argument with some Turkish creationists and the university about this a couple of years ago. They were medical doctors, and made great play of using their titles to establish scientific credibility. They hired a room at the university - via the Student Islamic Society - and the flyers bore the university logo so that it looked like Drs Babuna and Gundogdu were approved and respected researchers (which they weren't) and used the discourse of science to make fundamentally unscientific claims. In the discussion, the students split between those who believed that these two were proper scientists, and those who believed that the university was a secular plot to discredit these people - for the latter, the whole structure of science and education was a deceitful exercise, despite the fact that they were doing degrees.

At university, being an academic is partly a performance: look too young, too shy or 'not right' and credibility is hard to establish. Unfortunately, these criteria tend to be open to discrimination, based on people's ideas of what an academic looks or sounds like - traditionally white, male and posh - these creationists weren't white but they'd clearly thought carefully about how to seem authoritative. One of my colleagues, someone who is naturally very brilliant indeed, felt that she wasn't convincing her students because she looked so young, was enthusiastic and was an hourly-paid lecturer rather than a full member of staff. 'Aha', thought a kindly colleague. 'I'll demonstrate X's expertise by popping into her class to ask her something about her specialism. Unfortunately, between his accent and her hearing, she misunderstood what he said and the whole exchange convinced the students that the pair of them were mad chancers. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

There's a flip-side to this too: lots of us feel like we're always on the verge of being unmasked as frauds by the people who know better, even though everyone feels the same and sufferers usually are experts. It's called impostor syndrome. I haven't got it - but only because I am actually an impostor. I managed to scrape the PhD and it's worn me out. Nothing more to give. As the Vice-Chancellor reads this, I'll expect the P45 in the post by Monday.

I taught in seven subjects for a while, as an HPL: I never let on that I wasn't an expert or an employee, and usually got away with it. It's a bit depressing that personality is the basis on which we make judgements. Here at the Hegemon we don't do formal titles, gowns and all the other paraphernalia of the linear or hierarchical educational model - we see education as more collaborative than that, and establish our credibility in other ways. Well, I hope we do, I've no idea whether I'm any more credible than the fact that I'm the one standing at the front of the class. One of my other colleagues tells the story of doing a lecture in the early days of his PhD, when he was better known on campus as the SU barman. He wandered in, went to the front, opened his mouth only to be interrupted by a chorus of people whispering 'the barman's doing the lecture!'.

I don't really feel the need for formal credibility, and definitely don't think that academics should get it simply for being the bloke at the front of the class: we should earn it by engaging in debate with students (rather different from high-handedly putting them down, as one or two of my own teachers did). We deserve a degree of respect on the basis that we've had the time and space to think about things they're only just starting out with, but that's as far as it should go.

So students - what's your criteria?

Hallelujah!

Two momentous arrivals today - a niece and a new part for my shower. The former took no effort on my part, whereas getting the agent to fix the shower involved months of effort and annoyance. So I shall send flowers to my sister-in-law and my plumber in grateful thanks. One can only hope that the niece dribbles less than the shower and hasn't inherited the family's trademark triple chins.

On the agenda today: more research into Welsh travel writing, while keeping a sneaky eye on the Tour de France. What a dull Tour it's been, frankly. Sky's totalitarian team tactics have delivered an efficient and historic first victory for a British rider (Ireland's Stephen Roche won it in 1987, along with the Giro d'Italia and the world championship), but there's been little joy - few of the individual battles, the daring escapes the lung-busting heroism. Instead, Sky have blocked the front of the peloton, ignored breakaways lacking GC contenders and ground their way to Paris. Road-racing's about derring-do and superhuman feats, not efficiency. I think I preferred the Tour when everyone was on drugs and too spaced out to plan things rather than just take off like a rocket and leave everyone trailing.

Bernard Hinault, 'Le Blaireau' ('the badger', for his aggressive riding)

Thursday, 19 July 2012

A property-owning democracy

Another day, another speculative and shoddy plan to 'regenerate' this benighted town. More shops, more hotels, more architectural excrescences - and a market that's going to be 'transformed' by the presence of a massive Sainsbury's. Just like mountains are 'transformed' by mountain-top removal mining (it really exists, sadly).

Where did this plan come from?
this vision has been shaped with the direct input of developers, agents, landowners and major businesses.”
Ah, I see. Or rather I don't see one particular category listed here: us. The citizens of the city. The movers and shakers - and Uppal's fingerprints are all over this one - haven't noticed that we live in the era of Occupy and Open Source democracy. They'll no doubt demand the same things they always do: no planning restrictions, tax breaks, low wages and the control of public space.

But why on earth does the council not think of asking the inhabitants what we need and want? Do they really think we're too stupid to have an opinion? (Probably, yes). Until about a century ago, the vote was restricted to citizens who owned a certain amount of property, on the basis that only they had a settled stake in society. This kind of project makes it abundantly clear that the property qualification is back, and it's more undemocratic than ever.



To add insult to injury, this 'artist's impression' is the worst bit of Photoshop I've ever seen. How small is that train? What about the guy under the hotel canopy? I notice too that - unlike this delightfully diverse city - the imaginary version is whites only.

Political Fail. Photoshop Fail

Vote Obama and make an old man very happy

I'm never convinced by Sarah Silverman - frequently offensive but rarely funny enough to justify it. But this political proposal of hers to billionaire tyrant Sidney Sheldon is, well, unique. Wonder what Obama's campaign thinks of this kind of 'help'.

(Not especially SFW, by the way. Unless you work somewhere really cool. But particularly not S if you work in a school or vet's).

Justice?

Pc Simon Harwood, the officer who did this to shambling, alcoholic, innocent Ian Tomlinson, has been found not guilty of manslaughter. Despite Tomlinson having done nothing to provoke or inconvenience the police, a jury decided that Harwood - a man with a litany of violent assaults and corruption on his record - should go free.



What is manslaughter? It's killing someone without 'malice aforethought' (though malice seems pretty apparent in the video), and by being 'grossly negligent' about the victim's life and safety. Harwood smashed into Tomlinson from behind and without warning - which seems pretty negligent to me. Tomlinson may have been drunk or otherwise oblivious to events, and his physical condition may have made death more likely, but Harwood wasn't to know this - and nor should the jury have taken it into account. Did Harwood smash someone up without consideration of Tomlinson's safety? Clearly yes.

The coroner thought so - he declared a verdict of unlawful killing. Juries rarely find police officers guilty, but I'm shocked by this one - it took the view that Harwood didn't use criminal force and the blow didn't cause Tomlinson's death. Two pathologists testified: one who said the blow did kill him and one who said it didn't. The jury wasn't told that he's the cops' usual tame pathologist and one who's been twice suspended for making postmortem mistakes and kicked off the Home Office's register of approved pathologists. So much for justice.

The family intends to mount a civil action against Harwood. I hope they win. I've served on a jury. Between the prejudices of my fellow jurors, the stupidity of the lawyers (for the prosecution and the defence), police failures (in one case, innocence could easily have been established - in the other, guilt could equally easily have been proven) and judicial detachment from reality ('what is this 'Stella Artois'? 'A lager beer, your Honour' 'And in what quantities does one consume this 'Stella Artois'?'), I didn't feel justice was done at all.

Evenin' all!

What time do I call this, rolling into the office at 1 p.m. I know, I know, I'm a disgrace to academia. A slackademic, in fact.

Well, I was in bed. I went fencing last night, had a drink afterwards to mark the last one of the season, and then just didn't want to get up this morning. I actually thought my lie-in days were over after the final PhD push, when I was going to bed for 3 hours max. At one stage I was so spaced out that I just sat and watched a neighbour set fire to her husband's car without it occurring to me that this kind of behaviour was a bit odd.

Anyway, I'm allowed a morning off - I'm doing an Open Evening for potential part-time students tonight. I've washed and everything. Whether anyone will turn up is a different matter, but it's important. This place specialises in making education available for non-traditional students, and evening teaching is central to that. Besides, some of this year's very best students have been part-timers.

I would have posted The Bardots' shoegaze classic to exemplify how I feel right now, but Youtube - and thus the internet - has failed me yet again. The same goes for GNAC's chamber-pop masterpiece 'Friend Sleeping',  The Cat's Miaow's 'Sleepyhead'. Thankfully, Catchers' song of the same name is available, so there must be a few sane people in charge of the web.



If you like something a little more upbeat, have Edwyn Collins' stomper, 'Losing Sleep':



Slightly tangentially, but it deserves resurrection: Ned's Atomic Dustbin's 'Not Sleeping Around'.



It seems like bands from Stourbridge weren't very attractive - the Wonder Stuff also had to 'Sleep Alone':



And I couldn't ignore The Smiths' 'Asleep'. Wallow in the misery:



Right, on with some research.


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I don't recall…

If like me - and you're all like me, aren't you? - you'll have been stunned by the incidence of Alzheimer's Disease amongst those running the country or producing newspapers. Tony Blair, David Cameron, Osborne, Hunt, Dacre, the Murdochs - clearly they spent the early 90s eating British Beef and their brains have the consistency of Swiss cheese.

But how forgetful are they really? Well, one hardworking chap has done the analysis:
Being a politician        2.48% average    8x worse than the average person 
Being Prime Minister   3.77% average    12x worse than the average person 
Being involved in the Jeremy Hunt affair 5.94%  nearly 20x worse than the average man on the street 
Being a senior Murdoch Employee  5.77% 19x worse 
Being on the Government side in that deal 6.74% worse
Obviously I'm not an epidemiologist, but this looks statistically significant to me. Clearly being in the Establishment is bad for your health. And for the public sphere:
So government ministers, and their civil servants and special advisors involved in the Hunt affair have memories that are over 22x worse than  the average person. One government witness on their own had 58 memory failures, as many failures of memory as the total in the whole of the of the first module. or a rate of one memory failure every fifteen questions. 
Who has the worst memory? From this graph (click to enlarge), it's Jeremy Hunt's advisor Adam Smith, followed by Andy Coulson, with James Murdoch and David Cameron rather suspiciously close together. As the author points out, it's rather worrying for various other people that Rampaging Rebekah Brooks appears not to be relying on the Ernest Saunders defence - she'll be spilling the beans, we hope.

 More fine analysis here. Which brings us to the Readers' Poll: are our leaders liars or seriously mentally ill? Answers on a postcard…

Mervyn King - a clarification

Devoted readers - and I gather that includes the Vice-Chancellor - will remember that I was slightly scathing about the behind-closed-doors nature of the Governor of the Bank of England's visit to the university recently. The 'Wolverhampton Debates' are meant to examine ways in which this ailing town can be revived, and my point was that we're in an era of Open Source, whether we're talking about software, politics or economics.

My other point was that mainstream economists are discredited. They designed a fiscal model which rewarded the speculative circulation of money and abandoned what's called the 'real' economy: making things. Of course the problem with this is that of the 60m or so people in the UK, very few of them are needed to trade derivatives or CDSs. Labour's solution was to institute a low-wage service economy (we all serve each other cups of coffee) and the financial sector's taxes would provide benefits to top up these scandalously low wages. Cheap credit would also help workers bridge the gap between their wages and housing/living costs.

Bingo: big profits for outsourcers and agencies. Massive profits for financial services. Dependency and debt for workers and in the end, a crashed economy - because the financial services model was a) rotten to the core with corruption and b) structurally unsound: it was always going to overwhelm the real economy, and its operators were never going to keep providing the taxes. As a small example of the institutionalised corruption which masqueraded as policy, visit your local Inland Revenue (i.e. tax) office. It may look very governmental - poor architecture, cheap furniture, general air of being down at heel. But it's not a government building. The Inland Revenue sold all its building to a company called Mapeley Steps, and rents them back (apparently this makes sense in their universe, though I'd be asking where the profit is generated from). Mapeley Steps doesn't pay its taxes: it's an offshore company. So we pay our taxes in buildings sold by the tax office to a tax evader. Like I said - rotten to the core.

What we actually need is a high-pay, high-tax economy. Like the Scandinavian paradises. Clear out bankers earning millions for destructive speculative activity - it's very unclear that the people at the top of the tree actually add much to a company's value anyway - and pay ordinary workers a lot more. They spend it rather than hide it offshore, and they pay their taxes rather than evade them. Then we can provide decent state services - and not have to sink a huge amount of cash into subsidising low-paid jobs with tax credits etc. We can spend it on cold fusion, mag-lev trains and resources for humble English lecturers. Ahem.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Mervyn King. The VC just had a chat with me about my objections to these closed door debates. He said that the problem was Mervyn King's office: they demanded a guest list in advance, photo ID, and questions vetted - some were rejected. Security was pretty obsessive from the sound of it, which seems paranoid. Certainly he's an important man, but I doubt that he's any more of a target than David Miliband, whose security seemed pretty relaxed when he visited, despite his collusion in the rendition and torture of various Eastern individuals. To his great credit, King ignored the questions and opened up to the floor, so it appears that it's the entourage that's pompous rather than the individual.

So, who's the next celebrity guest? I can't reveal that before the university does, but I promise you this: if you like them rightwing (at least by my standards), buffed and unelected, you'll love him. I asked for a ticket and the VC laughed… and another page gets added to my Personnel file!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

And finally…

Last few shots of my weekend in Winchester (rest of the set here, or enlarge these ones by clicking on them). I promise tomorrow the thrill will have worn off and I'll be wearily blogging my outrage at the Tories/Leveson/the Tour de France once more. After I've gone to a 9 a.m. meeting, that is…

A lovely medieval statue mutilated in the Reformation's iconoclastic stage

Part of Bishop Fox's tomb in Winchester Cathedral. He's depicted as a skeletal, suffering figure in his death throes to remind us that even the rich and powerful come to the same end as the rest of us. I'm planning to send a copy to Bob Diamond. 

The 13th/14th Century Round Table of King Arthur in the Great Hall in Winchester. It was made for the engagement party of one of Edward I's daughters. The faux-Arthurian painting complete with Tudor rose was added for Henry VIII, the shameless spin-meister. 

One of the amazing things about the Cathedral is how knocked about by history it's been. Apart from the Norman chunk, it looks fairly coherent internally, but outside you can see evidence of the DIY undertaken by every generation since it was built a thousand years ago, such as this intersection of a blocked Norman door and an old roofline. It housed St. Swithin's shrine until the Reformation. As I visited on St. Swithin's day, it seemed only right to pray for rain. And so it came to pass! Old Swithin seems like a decent sort: he insisted on being buried outside the Cathedral with all the commoners - when they moved him inside, 40 days of rain followed as a mark of Heavenly Disapproval. 

Part of the Cathedral Close

The Jane Austen Death House. She lived there for six weeks and then died. 'Either that wallpaper goes, or I do'. Those were her last words. True fact. 

Some kind of flower

An industrious wagtail in the middle of the river

To bee or not to bee…


The Winchester Double-Action Wedding

Some more shots from the wedding and tourism I did in Winchester at the weekend. More here. Click on these to enlarge.

One of the Adams. From Sunderland and similarly nonplussed by Southern ways. Between us, we drank their entire stock of bitter. By 8 o'clock. Then we had to slum it with champagne.

Adam, Amit and Ken. One's a hedge fund trader. One lives in Swiss tax exile. Not Adam though. 

Adam's brother Josh. A decent fencer. And human being. 

'There were three people in this marriage… one of them a little drunk'. 


Bee off with you!

Curle's Walk, under the buttresses of Winchester Cathedral

The Cathedral Nave

Jane Austen's gravestone. It says that she had a fine mind, but doesn't actually mention she was an author at all!

Not only does this chap have magnificent whiskers, his name was Francis Francis. 

The Nave again

Winchester… so much to answer for

… as Morrissey didn't sing. If you've never been to Winchester, as I hadn't until this weekend, just imagine an England theme park. It's stunningly beautiful, ridiculously historic (formed capital of Wessex and England; Cnut's bones are in a chest on a shelf in the Cathedral) very clean and of course completely white. Not to say Tory to it's marrow. Captivating for a weekend, perhaps not entirely comfortable to live in if you're not very, very rich. Architecturally it's lovely - mostly flint walls, with a vernacular tradition of putting narrow red tiled roofs along them to protect the mortar from the rain.

I was there for the wedding of my friends Adam, whom I've know from university days, and Katie. The service was in a tiny church built above a gate in the ancient city walls, and the reception was in Winchester College, the medieval and very expensive private school - Eton's more intellectual rival, and a heartland of the military and civil Establishment. Anthony Trollope went there, as did Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas (Oscar Wilde's squeeze/nemesis) and of course British Union of Fascists would-be Fuhrer, Oswald Mosley. Though so also did Jack White, heroic socialist founder of the Irish Citizen Army. I assume both of them were very keen indeed on the CCF (Combined Cadet Force). Lots of posh Labour types, including Michael Foot and Seumas Milne, the firebrand revolutionary leftist and Irish republican. Oh, and Sir Humphrey Appleby. It's that kind of place.

Anyway, time to be utterly soppy and sentimental: some photographs of the happy couple and others at the rather lovely wedding which was temporarily ruined only by Your Truly getting up and reading Donne's 'The Good Morrow' in my angry-quacking-duck voice. Every man at the wedding seemed to be either a banker, or called Adam - apart from the groom, I spoke to two other Adams (didn't know them from…), and the joys of tax evasion were explained to me in some considerable detail. If you don't want to see pictures of happy married people, try the next couple of entries which are of Winchester Cathedral and environs.

The rest of the shots are here: click on these ones to enlarge.





Lovebirds. Aahhhh

Statue at Winchester College

Could you get any cuter than a little bridesmaid with her arm in a sling? Perhaps a puppy with a bandaged paw. 


'Push pineapple shake the tree'

The first dance was Ella Fitzgerald. Their 'special song' is Lana Del Rey's 'Video Games'. I'm well aware that this deserves and swift axe to the head but I let it pass as they got married that day. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Obesely morbid?

I'll be 37 tomorrow. Not that birthdays mean that much to me - I once turned up a day late to the joint party I was having with my next door neighbour. She was… unimpressed. I'll be celebrating tomorrow though… celebrating my friends' marriage. Needless to say, I'll be live-blogging and tweeting throughout the ceremony, except for the bit where I read John Donne's 'The Good Morrow'.

So anyway,  my thoughts turned to mortality and I decided to check my actuarial future according to various shoddy free online tests. Turns out I'll live to 78 or so. Which is convenient, as my current retirement date takes me to 68, so I won't burden you young folk too much, at least economically.


Your estimated life span is:

78.94 years

The table below shows how each response affects your overall life expectancy.
Ideal weight:good
Activity level:average
Stress level:average
Smoking habits:good
Drinking habits:good
Cholesterol level:good
Saturated fat intake:good
Blood pressure:good
Parents' health:good
Siblings' healthgood
Income level:good
Education:good
Traffic violations:good
Use of safety belt:good


The American IRS thinks I'll live to 83, based solely on my age now and what year it is. Top quality science, I'm sure we all agree.

The most comprehensive test I found is this one (give a fake email address) - it asks about risk, diet, drinking and smoking, environmental factors, how often I floss, how often I poo… It thinks I'll live to 91. Which means more than 50 extra years of this bitter drivel. It also advises me on how to live longer than 91, which begs the question of why I would want to. But if I want an extra 3 months, I should stress less. Daily aspirin supposedly gives me an extra two years' blogging, while flossing daily buys me 12 months. If I hit the gym every day, I might make it to 96. 96 years of boredom and pain, that is.

Bah. My plan is to live until the Book Tower falls on my head. Then my cats can eat my face off until rescued by vandals several years later. Or Michael Gove's Stormtroopers will execute me in a disused toilet for making fun of him. Either way, it beats decades of incontinence and ranting.

All that aside, the real reasons I'll live for a fair while - unless the students get really pissed off - is that I've won life's lottery. I'm male, white, western, highly educated and bourgeois. Bingo - all the fruit lined up as far as this appalling society goes.