Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So this is the new year

Two views of the coming of 2009.

One somewhat raucously welcoming:

Friends will be round soon to share a meal and see in the New Year. I will not be sorry to see the end of 2008, a bad year for me. So at midnight when the neighbours step out on to their doorsteps and blast into the air with their shotguns and the patter of pellets on the patio signify, in this part of the world at least, that Persephone is considering her return, alcohol fuelled hope will swell for another year. -- Peter Ryley

One rather...not.

I want to keep 2008. All things considered, for me 2008 was just fine, in any case better than 2007. I just don't want this new year. Neither coming nor going. It makes me sick before I even see it. Delivery refused. Return to sender. At midnight, standing in my yard, I'm going to pelt the new year with rubbish, excrement and scraps of food. I'll cry: 'You don't deserve fireworks, not you! Get lost, bitch! Go fuck yourself!'* -- Harald Martenstein

You'll be pleased to note that we'll be avoiding either emotional extreme this year: thus, our firearms will remain safely locked away, and our rubbish and excrement...well, that'll all stay where it belongs too.

Still, seeing that 2008 brought more successes than failures (though the former seem in retrospect to have been just about as stressful as the latter) and the balance for 2009 remains unknown, I would tend a bit more toward Herr Martenstein's trepidation.

On the other hand, there might be some nice things lurking in the 365 days to come.

So, with that in mind: bring it on, bitch.

Regardless of your take on these matters, we send fond wishes for a healthy, happy and successful year to those friends of ours in the online world and outside it.

Guten Rutsch!

(* Original: 'Ich will 2008 behalten. 2008 war alles in allem okay, für mich persönlich war 2008 jedenfalls deutlich besser als 2007. Ich will dieses neue Jahr ganz einfach nicht. Nicht von vorne, nicht von hinten. Es kotzt mich an, bevor ich es überhaupt sehe. Annahme verweigert. Return to sender. Um Mitternacht werde ich das neue Jahr, im Garten stehend, mit Abfällen, Fäkalien und Essensresten bewerfen. Ich werde rufen: »Ein Feuerwerk kriegst du nicht, nicht du! Hau ab, Schlampe! Fick dich ins Knie!'

I translated, obviously, somewhat loosely and more for sense than word-for-word, as 'fuck yourself in your knee' is one German insult that rather suffers from direct translation.)

From Jacques Demy to Charles Darwin in nine paragraphs

After the drama and violence of yesterday's post, here's something more soothingly emotional to celebrate the end of the old, as well as the beginning of the new year. We all deserve it, for 365 days is a long time and not all of those days were happy. Still, all told, 2008 was a good 'un for us (which is why we are in absolute agreement with Harald Martenstein, who is reluctant to let the old year go over at Die Zeit).

One of the several movies that we managed to watch during and after the holidays was Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. I think that there is nothing in the history of cinema comparable to Demy's "films in song", which differ from the characteristic climactic musical outbursts of your ordinary (Hollywood) musical in so far as in them all dialogue is sung.

Les Parapluies is unashamedly bittersweet, as this crucial encounter between Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) -- who works in her widowed mother's twee umbrella shop -- and her boyfriend Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) -- a car mechanic who has just received his draft notice -- documents:

Now, that draft notice is nothing to joke about, as the film is set during the Algerian War, and indeed Guy later on ends up in North Africa, where he witnesses the death of his comrades and is wounded himself. The lovers' apparently vehement reaction is therefore not entirely inappropriate.

What follows, however, is not so much tragic (in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way) as sobering, in fact almost banal: while Guy is in Algeria the lovers drift apart, even though Geneviève is pregnant with his child. Her matchmaking mother, acting on the principle that time is a great healer, exploits the growing distance between the lovers (which is not least due to Guy's perfunctory correspondence). She encourages her daughter to marry a wealthy diamond merchant who, earlier in the film, fell for Geneviève at first sight. His virtue and devotion is signalled by his willingness to marry the pregnant girl despite her predicament. Guy returns from the war, briefly sinks into deepest despair but is jolted from this period of drunken debauchery by the death of his aunt (who conveniently leaves him all her belongings). He comes to terms with his loss of Geneviève, marries Madeleine, a young, sensible (though pretty) woman who has been adoring him quietly for a long time, and uses his inheritance to set up his own business.

Years later, Guy and Geneviève have a chance encounter at his petrol station:

The film is fantastically colourful and charmingly camp, but far from a poorly developed sentimental tear-jerker, as has been claimed. There is something uncannily true about Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, all technicolor frivolity notwithstanding. Yes, this is a silly boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story but, hey, don't we all know that song?

What is most striking, however, is the calculating ruthlessness with which nearly all characters act in the film -- in a way that reminded me of far more naturalistic literary contexts, novels by Thomas Hardy or George Gissing, for example. Upward mobility is a major theme for Demy, in whose candy-coloured universe of cooing and crooning love is a very fragile thing indeed, always overshadowed by the powerful influence of human self-interest. Don't be fooled by Geneviève's pastel-coloured twinsets and ballet flats -- in evolutionary terms, the woman is a doe-eyed predator not unlike Elfride Swancourt in Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes. The mild-mannered Madeleine, too, follows a successful mating pattern of her own, unconsciously turning her passive self-abandonment into a costly signal of her general worthiness. Guy's love for her, finally, seems to be determined by a -- ultimately, I guess, reproductive -- pragmatism that is no less self-interested than his previous despondency.

Which all makes Les Parapluies of Cherbourg the perfect film to ring in the Darwin Year (and I don't mean this in a spiteful way at all). I'm convinced that it's healthy and sobering to remind ourselves at every opportunity that our grand gestures, noble emotions and high-falutin' ideals typically have very humble roots: the very basic needs and interests of the human animal, of which we, sadly, often fail to render ourselves aware.

To quote the man himself:

[W]e must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man [1871]).

On that note: have a good Hogmanay, ye animals. May your 2009 be happy, healthy and humble!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A most melancholy and affecting catastrophe, or: Up, up and away!

It's interesting what you find when looking for something completely different.

One of the various projects on which I'm currently working involves a lot of poking around in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century newspapers. Which are not, let me tell you, always that exciting. Loads of text, few things we would identify as 'headlines' and much of the content obsesses about the doings of now-obscure nobility, the threat of the (now-harmless) French navy or the variations in the price of (the now not-so-popular-or-vital) tobacco.

However, they're useful for the project on which I'm engaged (which doesn't, in fact, deal with any of the three above-named topics) and, as an added bonus, they occasionally contain something unexpected and fascinating.

For instance, yesterday I ran across something titled (rather unpromisingly, I thought) 'Garnerin's Balloon' in the London Times, 6 July 1802. The history of aviation being--as we historians say when at a loss for words--'not my area', it took me a few minutes to track down the reference.

As Wikipedia tells us, André-Jacques Garnerin was the Paris-born inventor of the 'frameless parachute' and a pioneer in hot-air balloon aviation. (As an added informational bonus, his intrepid-sounding wife has a good claim, it seems, to have been the first female hang glider rider.)

In any case, the Times article recounted one of Garnerin's balloon trips, and it sounds like it was quite an event:
Of all the scenes which for a length of time have attracted the attention of the Public, we have never witnessed any that drew forth so large an assemblage of people as was yesterday collected in the vicinity of Lord's Cricket Ground, to view the second Ascension of Garnerin's Balloon.
To have formed any idea of the numbers which occupied the Jews-harp Fields, the Nursery Grounds adjoining, the Cricket Grounds, and the tops of the houses for some distance round the neighbourhood, would be utterly impossible. Carriages, Hackney coaches, and market carts, filled every avenue, and for more than a mile and half on the New Road, vehicles of every description were standing in rows three deep. The foot-paths were also completely blocked up by crowds of Pedestrians.

So, anyway, Garnerin ensured that his balloon was ready to go, and loads of Londoners turned out to watch his 'ascension' in the rain, including a bunch of toffs, among them the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire.

Here's a painting that might represent this event (there was more than one ascension at Lord's in 1802):

The assorted nobles made a bunch of fuss about this crazy, flying Frenchman who lifted off at 'precisely five minutes before five' (emphasis in original...they did have funny ideas about italics in them days) and later landed safely.

Or, at least, mostly safely:
[W]e have the pleasure to say, that notwithstanding the violence of the wind, they landed in safety, with the exception of a bruise Mr. Garnerin received on his back at ten minutes after five [like I said...what's with the italics?], in a field of Mr. Owen's, at Chingford, in Essex, having traversed a space of seventeen miles in fifteen minutes.
Good for Mr. Garnerin! so good for the people on the ground.

As we find out at the end of this long article, things did not go nearly as well for the people who had turned out to see this stupendous event:
Before and after the ascension of the Balloon, the most flagrant and atrocious acts of plunder and robbery, were committed by gangs of thieves and pickpockets. Their numbers enabled them to carry on their depredations in security, and several instances occurred, where finding it impossible to steal with success, they did not scruple to seize and carry off the property openly and by force.
It gets worse:
The breaking down of a scaffold or platform, upon which a great number of persons had taken their stand, produced a most melancholy and and affecting catastrophe.
By this unfortunate accident seven persons were most dreadfully crushed, a child was killed on the spot, a woman had both her legs broken, a man had a leg broken, and two others their arms. Another had his head and face crushed in so dreadful a manner as to leave little hopes of his recovery.

This shocking event happened about half after three o'clock. A little boy was trampled to death by the crowd before he could be raised from the ground; and we are fearful that many more accidents of a similar kind have taken place.
Yes...but not so fearful that you wouldn't spend a thousand words or so blathering on about the antics of the Prince of Wales and a crazed French balloon enthusiast before you mention a collapsed viewing stand or a crushed child.

Ah, the good old days, eh?

(Full cite: 'Garnerin's Balloon', The Times, Tuesday, 6 July 1802, p. 2, Issue 5455; col B)

Previous found history:

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Tales of pistol-packing parsons and fistic friars
On unhealthy, sickly, womanish tendencies and the threat of feral ruffians
Cantankerous, prosy and full of mutual hatred
The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

Monday, December 29, 2008

Splendidis longum valedico nugis*

As our friend and fellow blogger across the wintry English Channel reminds us: "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei."

Well, so what? I can't remember when we ever had it "fat" in this here modest household, which has been running in relative frugality mode for ever -- much to the physical benefit and emotional happiness of its inhabitants.

Anyway, am I the only one to find the whole discourse going on in dear old Blighty about the credit crunch and the need to tighten belts somewhat half-arsed? I increasingly feel
that all this collective wailing and gnashing of teeth is not really about existential matters (because those who have existential matters to wail about don't get the chance to do so in public), but about complete trifles -- such as foregoing the purchase of your third plasma TV, umpteenth handbag or replacement Svarovski-crystal encrusted mobile phone.

Ouch, that really hurts.

Now, I am aware that the British obsession with personal adornment has a long history. Here's a comment from 1592 by Frederick of Mömpelgard (later Frederick Duke of Würtemberg), on your average early modern Londoner's materialism:
The inhabitants [of London] are magnificently apparelled, and are extremely proud and overbearing … The women have much more liberty than perhaps in any other place; they also know well how to make use of it, for they go dressed out in exceedingly fine clothes, and give all their attention to their ruffs and stuffs.
But although the attention to ruffs and stuffs continues to be a favourite Albionic concern (though Manchester seems to have surpassed London as Britain's shopping capital, what with the Wags and all that), I must say I'm also far from impressed by the results of all that therapeutic preening (which is -- something I have never quite understood -- what shopping in excess allegedly is).

Sadly, the more the British press oracles advise us about how we may best consume our way out of the economic crisis and benefit from the great discounts to be found on the collapsing High Streets, the less hopeful I am for the end of bad taste and general commonness in the wake of a new age of austerity.

The new age of austerity, I fear, will not take place.

So here's my humble prediction for 2009: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:10).

*A long farewell to shining trifles

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Unseasonal Greetings

As John has pointed out, we have been ill. Ill in a big way. In fact, I haven't been as ill as I have been for the last four days since 1996. And though I'm much better today than I was on Tuesday, I'm still not one hundred percent shipshape, so forgive if I'm rambling. It might be the fever ....

At least our illness has meant that this year we've had the best ever excuse for our typical Christmas avoidance scheme. "Sorry, I couldn't get into the Christmas spirit -- had to writhe in my bed drenched in a cold sweat, fighting off hideous ghosts hailing from various personal, professional as well as entirely fictional contexts".

So, this hasn't been exactly an active time. During our rare lucid spells we managed to watch a few DVDs, one of them being -- nice Christmassy "peace on earth" touch, that -- Lindsay Anderson's If .... Here are the final minutes of the film, in case you haven't seen it:

Well, after being unsettled by that hefty dose of the good old ultraviolence I hallucinated how I sometimes irritate students in their oral exams by asking whether the descent into violence on the part of the boys stranded on an uninhabited island in Lord of the Flies (a book many of them have read in school, which is why it inevitably pops up in their lists of exam topics) might in any way be related to the purportedly civilised background from which these characters hail.

This background emerges sketchily on the fringes of the plot, for instance in the odd deus-ex-machina appearance of a British officer at the end of the novel who gets all policeman-of-the-worldy at the sight of the boys' carnage ("I should have thought that a pack of British boys -- you're all British aren't you? -- would have been able to put up a better show than that -- I mean -- "). This final scene echoes the way the boys' (public) school uniforms are used to invoke a lost world of stability, security and order in the first chapter -- a world threatened by the larger, unidentified conflict from which the boys flee (only to end up on the island where things -- i.e. they -- get nasty) and its obscene apotheosis, the atom bomb. At the end of Golding's novel, order is restored and the feral boys willingly, nay: gladly, submit to the uniformed figure of authority come to rescue them.

However -- and this is where Golding meets Anderson -- what happens on the island between the boys collapses the neat separation of order and destruction, friend and foe on which the novel appears to be based: really, their gruesomely destructive actions are the continuation of the more "sophisticated" external carnage by somewhat cruder means.

If ... is based on exactly the same analogy between the brutality of the world at large -- synecdochally represented by the disciplinary regime of the public school in which the film is set -- and the violent microcosm that develops in its midst both as a result of that regime and by way of the character Travis's revenge against it. While Lord of the Flies is far less overtly anti-authoritarian, the novel nevertheless makes the disturbing point that relationships between human beings are forever overshadowed by our ingrained capacity for violence, which may be harnessed into a semblance of civilisation, but can never be fully overcome.

Anyway, students tend to get annoyed at my question about Lord of the Flies. Well, I guess they are the Harry Potter generation who have been indoctrinated with an idealising notion of "school" in general -- and public school (in the British sense) in particular: a mythical caring coterie of kind and loyal comrades (a far cry from the plebeian/philistine backgrounds of some of the characters), fully equipped with transmogrifying sweets, cuddly mandrakes and wood-panelled halls, where "evil" exists in physical and hence easily identifiable and vanquishable form.

It's a pity -- though maybe not entirely incomprehensible -- that they prefer the emotionally attractive (and, need it be stated explicitly, commercially valuable) perspective and impose it upon more complex texts that challenge our/their overblown notions of humanity's civilising potential.

And a merry manhunt to you all

Those of you who follow such things -- and we are grateful for those of you who do -- will have noticed that things have been pretty quiet here over the last week or so.

Not a creature has been stirring at this blog, you will have noted, not even a mouse.

It's not been a result of our preoccupation with the seasonal festivities, rest assured.

No, we've both (or each) been stricken by mysterious cold/flu bugs that have dampened our thinking processes and forced us to concentrate all the brainpower we could muster on more urgent real-world projects.

Normal broadcasting, with any luck, should resume shortly.

But The Cold That Wouldn't Go Away hasn't kept me from keeping up with the Playmobil 'Police Manhunt' advent calendar I introduced some weeks ago.

When we last left matters, our young delinquent Otto was scaling down the wall of a house he had just burgled, brazenly flouting the laws of civilised society. As matters stood at the beginning, the police looked to be quite perilously undermanned.

However, you may now be reassured that the intervening days has seen the state's power grow dramatically, and, in a dramatic scene last night, the forces of law and order (with both vehicular and animal support) cornered the miscreant...

...(here, the drama is captured in an exciting aerial view)...

...and brought him to justice.

Today, he sits in his cell, reflecting upon his anti-social behaviour. There remains hope that with the right kind of treatment, he may one day be rehabilitated. (Yes, this is Germany, where he's not so likely to simply rot in prison.)

In this regard, young Otto is in a better position than another social deviant, known for his many years of serial break-ins. Fortunately, we receive word that he too, has been rendered harmless by the ever-vigilant guardians of the social order.

Lock the bastard up and throw away the key, I say. (Image via)

And merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On inelegant t-shirts and people who represent the entire overpopulation of the world

German Joys is celebrating 'Max Goldt Weeks'.

Who is Max Goldt? Well, he writes things like this, an excerpt from 'The Masses and the Maidens' (translation by Andrew at GJ):
I once explored the local terrain with an expert in questions of style and coolness. We saw a man with a sweatshirt that said HARD ROCK CAFÉ BERLIN. My companion intoned expertly: “Really, there’s nothing uncooler than that.” I possess only one written-on article of clothing – a T-shirt given to me as a joke, which reads: BEER FORMED THIS BEAUTIFUL BODY. Back then, it was new to the joke-shirt market, and still somewhat funny. Still, I never put it on. I recently thought about giving the shirt to an extremely pregnant friend of mine – not, however, before I’d crossed out the word BEER and replaced it with the substance relevant to her situation. However, I’d already annoyed this friend with a most inelegant motherhood-related joke before, and I didn’t want to be banished entirely from her sphere of favor. We were sitting in a café, and there was still one seat left at our table. Through the door came a sleazebag whom I, regrettably enough, slightly knew. There are some people who are so unpleasant that they seem to represent the entire overpopulation of the world, standing there before you, compressed into one body. Out of disgust, I said to my friend: “You’re a woman. You can give birth. Bear a hedgehog, please, and put it on the free chair, so the bugger doesn’t sit here.” The friend didn’t like that at all. “Don’t ever say anything like that again,” she said, nervously stroking her belly. Thus, I forbade myself the inelegant T-shirt joke.


Recently, a group of girls who’d apparently just written a biology paper got into the subway. From out of the general chatter one of the girls, about 15, crowed a sentence that almost made me explode with pleasure: “Silly old fruitcake that I am, I forgot to write ‘rectum’ in parentheses after ‘colon’”!

Of course, even the finest girls don’t say such delightful things all the time. But it’s always nice to hear them say the typical sentences that intelligent young people say, such as: “I think it’s okay to be photographed nude, as long as it’s aesthetic,” or: “Chaos is the beginning of every new order.” Adults should avoid such phrases, of course, but the young have a license to babble. Another very good one: “Sexuality has quite a bit to do with death.” Sexuality has, of course, nothing at all to do with death, but when a 15-year-old says that, it’s just adorable. I say: “Girls are the beginning of every new order, and have quite a bit to do with death.” Isn’t that also adorable?

Now, go read more.

College Days

Barack Obama, 1980

The rest of this excellent photo series available at (via Boing Boing)

Searching the commons

The head cold I brought back with me from London is continuing to wrap my neurons in a fuzzy layer of cotton wool, making it difficult for me to think in linear terms. (Either that or I'm suffering from a brain tapeworm...not a pleasant thought.)

It was fortunate, then, to run across a link at Boing Boing which led me to a fascinating photo collection at Flickr Commons, to which the New York Public Library has just begun contributing, of images that have no known copyright restrictions.

As the NYPL states:

Starting this past January with The Library of Congress, and continuing with places such as The Smithsonian Institution, The Brooklyn Museum, The National Maritime Museum, The National Library of New Zealand, the Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands and numerous others, the Commons has grown steadily over the past year into a truly remarkable public photography resource.

Remarkable indeed. A quick browse through the archive brought up some interesting snaps. (Click for full-size images.)

Midsummer day, Bronx Park, 1911 (Library of Congress)

Blanche Rogers, with pistol. (Library of Congress)

Jiu-Jitsu for Women (George Eastman House collection)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Music

Another great muscial discovery - and a perfect companion piece to Hermann Dune (yes, these days our favourite pop stars come equipped with beards and scanty hair):

Misty's Big Adventure, "Serious Thing"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Take me to the monkey sauna

It's freezing outside, I have a lot of work to get done, and I have the worst head cold I can remember having in ages.

I think these little fellas have the right idea...

Snow Monkeys enjoying the hot springs in Yamanouchi.

(Picture via Spiegel Online. Background here.)

German TV icon dies

R.I.P. Horst Tappert, bourgeois Germany's longstanding televisual incarnation of law and order.

Yes, this is what us Germans associate with the term "sleuth." This is our Karl Malden, solving his cases in the smutty streets of ... upper-middle-class Munich. Despite (or because of?) the series' rather Chabrolian take on the nature and context of crime, the whole world was intrigued by Derrick, the cop show whose title role Tappert played for 24 years until 1998. The show - dubbed and/or subtitled - was exported to 100-odd countries. In Italy, according to Fritz Wepper, the actor who played his sidekick, Tappert was the second most important person after the Pope (video evidence here and here).

Derrick's tag line, directed at his assistant, is better known in Germany than "Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa" or "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders": "Harry, go get the car" ("Harry, hol' schon mal den Wagen").

We shall miss this unassuming but culturally significant man.

Keeping an eye on an-eye-for-an-eye, continued

Because of some overlap in our research interests, The Wife and I have both been paying attention to the work of William I. Miller, who has, among other things, written very insightfully about vengeance.

We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Miller at a conference in York a few years ago, where he was talking about the 'talionic' law -- nicely summed up in the phrase 'an eye for an eye' -- and you can get a good idea of some of his thinking on this topic from a 2006 interview at (via The Wife).

The question-and-answer opens like this:

Your book argues that we often use the term "eye for an eye" to describe a harsh kind of justice from the past. But talionic societies could be said to put a higher value on human life and the human body than we do. They were much more committed to finding the exact worth of body parts and lives. So, let's say you poke out my eye...

Then, instantly, my eye becomes yours. To get the value exactly right, we say an eye is worth an eye. You have a right to my eye. Now you can say to me, "I'm going to take your eye." Then I'm going to say, "Hey, what would you be willing to accept instead?" It becomes an initial bargaining position.

If you want victims to be more highly valued and you want real, adequate compensation, this is how to do it. Now if I offer you what some lousy insurance company says your eye is worth -- say, $100,000 -- you'll say, "No way! I would never have let you take my eye for that." Instead, you can be sure I'll put the same value on not losing my eye that you would have put on yours, and I will pay you that amount to keep my own eye. How about $5 million? Let's start there. And we'll bargain it out.

Later, Miller again offers a defence for the notion of revenge:

When people compare modern ideas of justice with the old idea of "eye for an eye," they often talk about the difference between justice and revenge.

There is no difference. The literature on punishment and retribution, the philosophical and legal literature, doesn't understand revenge. They talk about revenge as going postal, the lawless, crazed overvaluation of your own harm. But if you look at real honor cultures and real revenge cultures, they were measurers and proportionalists to the extreme. What they would call revenge is simply paying back exactly what was owed. No more, no less.

The law of the talion was not a law issued by a government to regulate criminal matters. It was tort law, a compensation principle dictating how much private party A owes private party B for the harm A did to B.

Although I think he's sometimes being a bit deliberately provocative (not that there's anything wrong with that), I find Miller's comments on vengeance to be pretty convincing, not least since I've spent a certain amount of research effort examining the difficult social transition away from more direct, personal and physical forms of punishment to more mediated, state-oriented and less violent ones.

I commented on this in more detail earlier this year.

So far, so abstract, but I had to think of Miller's comments when I ran across an article at the Washington Post yesterday about Ameneh Bahrami, an Iranian woman who was blinded and disfigured four years ago when Majid Movahedi, a young man whose offer of marriage she rejected, dumped a bucket of acid over her head.

It is a horrendous story of physical torment, but what links it to Miller's comments above is that Bahrami has now turned to the same kind of 'talionic' principles that are still central to Islamic law:
With little left to lose, Bahrami took the unusual step of asking the court for qisas, or eye-for-an-eye retribution as allowed under Islamic law.

Courts usually order families of the accused to pay "blood money" for the crimes. But Bahrami insisted on the punishment.
This means:

Movahedi was sentenced to five drips of sulfuric acid in each eye. His father said he was "incredibly sorry" for what had happened. "If Ameneh is really blind, the verdict against my son must be implemented," he said.

Under Iranian law, a convict has 20 days to appeal the verdict. If Movahedi fails to do so, the punishment will be carried out on a date decided by the judiciary.

Movahedi, the article says, seems to show no remorse for what he did, nor does he even seem to understand that what he did was wrong:

More than two weeks ago, Movahedi was led into court by two policemen. He showed no remorse when the court ruled on the case. When the judge asked whether he was ready for his punishment, Movahedi said that he still loved Bahrami but that if she asked for his eyes to be taken out, he would seek the same punishment for her.

"They must also completely empty out her eyes, since I'm not sure that she cannot secretly see," he said. "The newspapers have made this a huge case, but I haven't done anything bad."

While I wouldn't advocate introducing these methods into our legal system -- or argue that this case redeems all of the other things that are troubling about Islamic law -- I have to admit that not only did I not recoil in horror at the sentence, I can even feel the justice of this decision, regardless of whether or not it serves as a deterrent against other such attacks.

And I don't consider myself to be a particularly bloodthirsty person.

But maybe I'm wrong about that.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A knife in the dark

It was back in May that The Wife justly bemoaned a certain blindness on the part of some Bavarian politicians regarding the threat posed by far-right extremists.

It suddenly seems that this has changed, but the reason is hardly one to celebrate.

Yesterday evening, Alois Mannichl, the police superintendent in Passau, was attacked and stabbed as he answered the door at his home. Before fleeing, the attacker, according to Der Spiegel, stated: 'Greetings from the national resistance. You leftist police pig, you will no longer trample on the graves of our comrades.' ('Viele Grüße vom nationalen Widerstand. Du linkes Bullenschwein, du trampelst nicht mehr auf den Gräbern unserer Kameraden herum').

'National resistance' is a self-designation popular in far-right circles.

Mannichl survived, though it appears to have been a close call, as the knife missed his heart by a couple of centimetres.

It would not be surprising if the 'cowardly attack' (in the words of Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Hermann) was indeed carried out by the far-right, since Mannichl has been one of their most determined opponents.

Most spectacularly, he seems to have taken a leading role in re-opening the grave of a prominent neo-Nazi figure in July. This had been done since another leading neo-Nazi had laid a flag with a swastika on it over the casket while it was in the grave. The use of such symbols is illegal in Germany, and the police opened the grave and removed the flag.

The alleged statement of Mannichl's attacker would fit with the outrage that the re-opening of the grave sparked on the far-right.

It seems likely that the conservative leadership of the Free State have finally been shaken out of their complacency regarding the fascist threat in their midst. It's unfortunate that it has taken a shocking attack upon an apparently courageous policeman to do so.

We wish Alois Mannichl a speedy recovery.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The sound of pain

In Billy Wilder's cold war comedy One, Two, Three, the character Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), a staunch communist held by the East German police on suspicion of espionage for the Klassenfeind, is tortured by having "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" played to him nonstop.

The following is a list of the tracks used to torture people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay these days:

AC/DC - Hell's Bells, Shoot to Thrill
Barney the Purple Dinosaur - theme tune
Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive
Britney Spears
Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA
Christina Aguilera - Dirrty
David Gray - Babylon
Deicide - Fuck Your God
Don McLean - American Pie
Dope - Die MF Die, Take Your Best Shot
Dr. Dre
Drowning Pools - Bodies
Eminem - Kim, Slim Shady, White America
Li'l Kim
Limp Bizkit
Matchbox Twenty - Gold
Meat Loaf
Metallica - Enter Sandman
Neil Diamond - America
Nine Inch Nails - March of the Pigs, Mr. Self-Destruct
Prince - Raspberry Beret
Queen - We are The Champions
Rage Against the Machine - Killing in the Name Of
Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Saliva - Click Click Boom
Sesame Street - theme tune
Tupac - All Eyes on Me

The Sesame Street theme tune?

No, this isn't a joke. It's very sad indeed.

Via Süddeutsche Zeitung. More on the zero db campaign here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dance, dance, dance little doctors

You learn something new every day. For instance, that in the US there is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sponsored competition called "Dance Your Ph.D." in which scientists do precisely that: dance their doctoral dissertations. According to an article in Stern, competitors are judged by the expressiveness of their product and its ability to bring across the project's central message.

I don't think Francis Sedgemore will be impressed by the efforts (or their heuristic value, for that matter). But see and judge for yourselves:

Here's Vince LiCata and team dancing "Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids"

Closet patriot that I am, I was particularly happy to see that there's a winner from Germany: Miriam Sach from the University of Düsseldorf, dancing "Cerebral activation patterns induced by inflection of regular and irregular verbs with positron emission tomography. A comparison between single subject and group analysis"

She clearly has a background in classical ballet, fruitfully spiked here with a good dose of Pina Bausch.

More videos can be found here.

I can't think of any of my colleagues who'd be willing to do something quite as compromising AND post it on YouTube. But one may dream, mayn't one?

At this point I would have liked to post a clip of Landlord Marty's dance from The Big Lebowski, but sadly none could be found in the infinite depths of the World Wide Web. So you have to imagine.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

So this is what righteous people look like

A disturbing exhibition is currently on show at the The California Museum of Photography, Riverside. Jona Frank's "In the Paths of Righteousness" features photographs of students at the Presbyterian Patrick Henry College in Virginia. The mix of buxom, corn-bred optimism (which I guess comes with being American) and utter fatuousness (which I guess comes with taking the Bible a little too literally) displayed on the faces of some of the people portrayed by Frank is potent and frightening

Exhibition homepage here, article in Süddeutsche Zeitung here.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Berlin birdman

Authorities in Berlin are worried about Gerhard A. and his 500 budgies. So they should be - quite obviously it is a crazy thing to want to keep several hundred of Melopsittacus undulatus in your tiny apartment.

This is a sad story, I grant you that. However, my immediate association on reading about this poor man - apart from Burt Lancaster and Alcatraz - was a passage from Dracula:

[Renfield] has managed to get a sparrow, and has already partially tamed it.His means of taming is simple, for already the spiders have diminished. Those that do remain, however, are well fed, for he still brings in the flies by tempting them with his food.

19 July--We are progressing. My friend has now a whole colony of sparrows, and his flies and spiders are almost obliterated. When I came in he ran to me and said he wanted to ask me a great favour, a very, very great favour. And as he spoke, he fawned on me like a dog.

I asked him what it was, and he said, with a sort of rapture in his voice and bearing, "A kitten, a nice, little, sleek playful kitten, that I can play with, and teach, and feed, and feed, and feed!"

I was not unprepared for this request, for I had noticed how his pets went on increasing in size and vivacity, but I did not care that his pretty family of tame sparrows should be wiped out in the same manner as the flies and spiders. So I said I would see about it, and asked him if he would not rather have a cat than a kitten.

His eagerness betrayed him as he answered, "Oh, yes, I would like a cat! I only asked for a kitten lest you should refuse me a cat. No one would refuse me a kitten, would they?"

I shook my head, and said that at present I feared it would not be possible, but that I would see about it. His face fell, and I could see a warning of danger in it, for there was a sudden fierce, sidelong look which meant killing. The man is an undeveloped homicidal maniac. I shall test him with his present craving and see how it will work out, then I shall know more.

10 pm.--I have visited him again and found him sitting in a corner brooding. When I came in he threw himself on his knees before me and implored me to let him have a cat, that his salvation depended upon it.

I was firm, however, and told him that he could not have it, whereupon he went without a word, and sat down, gnawing his fingers, in the corner where I had found him. I shall see him in the morning early.

20 July.--Visited Renfield very early, before attendant went his rounds. Found him up and humming a tune. He was spreading out his sugar, which he had saved, in the window, and was manifestly beginning his fly catching again, and beginning it cheerfully and with a good grace.

I looked around for his birds, and not seeing them, asked him where they were. He replied, without turning round, that they had all flown away. There were a few feathers about the room and on his pillow a drop of blood. I said nothing, but went and told the keeper to report to me if there were anything odd about him during the day.

11 am.--The attendant has just been to see me to say that Renfield has been very sick and has disgorged a whole lot of feathers. "My belief is, doctor," he said, "that he has eaten his birds, and that he just took and ate them raw!"

Which is why the beige psychologist's benevolent commentary on A.'s multiple disorders in the video will not do. The man needs shock therapy - of the sort that involves having to walk around Charlottenburg in a pea green Crimplene suit and a Kelly Bag in hand:

[Image via]

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Getting into the Christmas manhunt spirit

Although I'm hardly one to overflow with Christmas cheer, I think one of the nicest of this season's traditions is the 'Advent calendar'. When I was a child, we usually had one, and I still recall the (somewhat excessive, in retrospect) excitement about opening up a new little window on each day to see what tiny little image was behind it.

Yes, we were pathetically easy to please back in those kinder, gentler, simpler, pre-Xbox days.

I don't recall ever having one that actually gave you things on each day (and, you know, considering what a greedy little brat I was, I'm sure I would remember such undeserved largesse). It was probably for that reason that one particular calendar appealed so much to me in mid-November when I saw it at the local supermarket.

Thus it was that the Playmobil Advent calendar with the seasonal title 'Polizei auf Verbrecherjagd' (i.e., 'Police manhunt') ended up in our house.

Now, I must admit to an enduring (and, yes, somewhat immature) love for certain kinds of toys, such as Lego and Playmobil.

I spent far more time (outrageous amonts of time, really) with Lego as a child, but -- especially since being in Germany, the birthplace of Playmobil -- I have become more fascinated with the latter. This is not only because of Playmobil's strikingly didactic nature (these are clearly toys with a message) but also because they often do not shy away from the darker side of life.

Check out, for example, this Playmobil gladiator arena.

Yes, that's a lion.

It's unclear whether actual Christians are included, but I suppose the Familienspaziergang set could be quickly adapted in a pinch.

In this openness to presenting children with, shall we say, a somewhat pessimistic notion of what human relationships are (and, historically, have been), we might see Playmobil as carrying on a noble German tradition of, say, Grimm's fairy tales or the gory collection of stories starring a figure named Struwwelpeter.

You can get a taste of the kind of joyful childhood optimism contained in the latter via this Wikipedia summary of a few of the stories:

In "Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug" (The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches), a girl plays with matches and burns to death.

"Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar" (The Story of Kaspar who did not have any Soup) begins as Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies.

In "Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher" (The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb), a mother warns her son not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.

In "Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert" (The Story of Flying Robert), a boy goes outside during a storm. The wind catches his umbrella and sends him to places unknown, and presumably to his doom.
Painful death, maiming, and doom: that's what children's literature should be all about.

There's nothing quite so bloodthirsty about my Advent calendar (this is Christmas after all), but there are a few things about it that I think are worth noting.

Like: there's nothing that says Christmas like a 'manhunt'.

In case you're unfamiliar with Advent calendars, the idea behind this one is: each day between the 1st and 24th of December, a child (or, in my case, a childish adult) gets to open a numbered box containing one part of the whole play set.

They are thus opened in a specific order, that is defined by the company.

The figure, equipment or accessories revealed can then be added to a kind of cardboard urban backdrop that was also included. This enables a certain amount of creativity.

This is, by the way, a lot more fun than it sounds, especially if you are as juvenile as I am.

But I also noticed something interesting. Here, for example, is a picture of my Polizei auf Verbrecherjagd play set after five days.

You will note: there is no Polizei. No Jagd. Just a Verbrecher, seen on the left hand side of the picture, scaling his way down a building he has just presumably burgled.

Here, a close-up of the tiny little deviant.

I have decided -- in honour of another charming delinquent -- to call him 'Otto'.

What struck me is the particular discourse behind this sequence. Rather than taking the perspective -- common enough in modern criminology -- that the criminal justice apparatus creates criminals (by, say, defining and enforcing particular notions of 'deviancy' or whatever), Playmobil endorses an older, more positivistic notion of policing.

Instead of being interpellated into his criminal status by the powers that be, our little housebreaker, Otto, represents a pre-existing social problem. In some sense, perhaps, he stands in for the potential for disorder and violation inherent in human nature.

Then -- and only then -- it is in reaction to the very real threat he poses that a policing apparatus will (slowly, day-by-day) be built.

Otto, in short, is a problem.

(Although he may not be a serious problem: for all his building-scaling skills, Otto has decided to burgle a house right across the street from a police station.)

Nor are we given the sense that he's committing some kind of poverty-inspired social crime. Not only do we not know his motivation for stealing the case full of plastic money, but Otto bears all the hallmarks of the professional criminal, both in terms of his specialised knowledge (climbing buildings) and tools (the extensive set of keys he wears on his belt).

Given the promises on the box, I can tell that the power of the agents of the Staatsmacht will eventually grow to a rather impressive extent, eventually including motorised vehicles, a police dog and several guns.

Otto, I think, will not stand a chance.

However, the forces of law and order got off to a bit of a slow start yesterday, as the first police officer made his or her (I find the sex a bit indeterminate) appearance. However, it was not until today that he (or she) was given the tools to do the job: a radio and a pistol.

The gun, for the moment, is staying holstered. However: as one of the initial items that appeared, presumably intended for Otto's use, was an axe, I'm not sure how long that is going to be the case.

And, having cheated a bit and looked ahead at the kind of props that are on the way, I saw that the last piece to be opened, on Christmas Eve, is an ominous one for dear little Otto: a prison bed. (Thus ends the series that began with the criminal himself: a clearer way of expressing that crime doesn't pay is hard to imagine.)

I was, actually, convinced that that final item it was an autopsy table, until The Wife corrected me earlier this evening. So, Otto will perhaps be saved from an all too harsh fate.

Still, it's my toy and I can imagine what I want, can't I?

One way or another, this going to end in tears for someone.

I'm sure of it.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Scary Friday

A rather random collection of things for your perusal and enjoyment at the end of the week.

First, a striking transformation across six years, captured in mug-shots:

Further information available at The Smoking Gun (via Boing Boing).

I'm a bit awestruck at this tattooing: I mean, imagine the pain of having all of that space filled in...on your face. And, along with all the satanic imagery and the Celtic knots, there's this...what?...bow tie?! On his throat!?

Nice touch. Impressive.

Even more disturbed (and far more wonderful) is 'Chainsaw Maid', a short claymation zombie film from Takena, a Japanese college student. (Also via Boing Boing).

This is gory. You wouldn't think that clay figures exploding in fountains of blood and vomiting their entrails over the coffee table could provoke such a strong reaction.

But they do.

There is much more of the same.

In other news, the 'Palm Pistol', a single-shot 9mm pistol from Constitution Arms, is designed to make armed self defence available to the elderly and handicapped.

Here it is:

From Sky News:

"Point and shoot couldn't be easier," the New Jersey-based company claims on its website.

And it goes on to say: "It is ideal for seniors, disabled or others who may have dexterity limitations or difficulty sighting and controlling a traditional revolver or semi-automatic pistol."

The Palm Pistol has been certified as a Class I Medical Device by the US Food and Drug Administration, Constitution Arms said.

That means doctors could prescribe it to certain people, such as those who have had fingers amputated.

I'm...still struggling a bit with how a firearm can be classified as a medical need, but it's an interesting invention, I have to admit, even though I'd prefer to have a second round available, just to be sure.

And it's definitely socially inclusive.

Just make sure you don't confuse it for an asthma inhaler. The results could be tragic.

Finally, we give some apparently much-needed attention to 'Otto', an octopus at the Coburg Aquarium in Germany.

Here's Otto:

He has, apparently, been a bit high-maintenance recently:

"Once we saw him juggling the hermit crabs in his tank, another time he threw stones against the glass damaging it. And from time to time he completely re-arranges his tank to make it suit his own taste better - much to the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants."

After all that intimidation, blood, weaponry and hooliganism, it might be time for something a bit more soothing.

Like some inter-species friendship.

More on this story from The Sun.

Welcome to the weekend!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Whistle while (and before and after) you work

My non-professional existence these days is reduced to the 25 minute drive to and from work, which I tend to spend listening to Deutschlandradio Kultur (but for the bit where reception is bad and I get my daily dose of Radio Rockland). Although mildly annoying at times -- as the German artsy-educated-pc-liberal media tend to be -- there is plenty of interesting info and decent entertainment to be found on that channel (which may be compared to NPR in the US and Radio 4 in the UK).

DRK is not 1oo% reliable on the musical side of matters (there is a surplus of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" at the moment, which they seem to have booked as their favourite final track before the news, and you have an angry rant triggered by my involuntary exposure to Chris Martin's purportedly deep lyrics coming), but typically I get to listen to one gem a day. Like this one, this morning:

What can I say: Mike Stipe looks like a cross between the Nuremberg Christkind (angelic, that is) and John Cleese.

[UPDATE]: Here I was willing to generously grant "Viva la Vida" the status of "halfway bearable tune" (but for the naff lyrics), but apparently the tune is the last thing that Coldplay contributed to the track. They're being sued for plagiarism by Joe Satriani. Oh, whatever will Gwynnie say to that?

Tötally Brütal

According to Blogger, this is the 670th post at this here blog.

Which means, obviously, that we let the 666th go by without, you know, properly celebrating.

The trailer for the upcoming 'black metal adventure game' Brütal Legend seems a good way to atone for that oversight. (Via Offworld.)

It offers not only the needless Umlaut (the unparalleled symbol for bad-ass evilositude everywhere) and a hero based (loosely, it would seem) on Jack Black (whose sinister rock'n'roll we've featured before), but it also features Dio's 'The Mob rules' and plenty of gory battle-axe action.

(As cool as the music is, it's hardly black metal, but who am I to uphold the doctrinal purity of heavy metal subgenres?)

Oh, and while we're at it, let me reiterate my recommendation of the recent (and free) Mountain Goats EP, Satanic Messiah. Which, in fact, has nothing to do with metal. But which is very, very good.

Keep those horns up, people.

(Image context provided here.)

The calculus of the caring society

I'm not really much of a numbers guy, but I was struck by a recent post by Ben Goldacre at his Bad Science blog which highlights the care that needs to be taken when using statistics to measure changing social attitudes.

More accurately, he--for, like, the thousandth time--points out how the media fail to take this care.

My interest in this issue has increased, as I'm currently making my first forays into using serious quantitative data for a historical study. Indeed, I spent much of the last two days trying to come to grips with pivot tables so that I can make some sense of the information I've been carefully collating and entering into a spreadsheet.

Some of you may have gotten drowsy simply reading those last two sentences, and not long ago I might have been with you; however, I'm starting to find something exciting about making numbers do various little dances. (And, after a period of wanting to throw my laptop against the wall out of frustration, I seem to have gotten my tables to do what they are supposed to.)

I have the good fortune of working with a colleague who knows his way around numbers, and I've become increasingly aware of how much discipline is required in teaching your figures the requisite dance steps. This is especially so in cases when you're trying to use that data to tell you about such nebulous topics as 'cultural attitudes' or 'social life'.

The specific topic of Goldacre post was a recent spate of stories suggesting that there had been a shift toward a more 'caring society' based on a figure showing a greater number of births of children with Down syndrome. The logic behind this, I think, is that the growth in Down syndrome births showed a greater willingness to bring such pregancies to term. A number of media sources took this story and ran with it, expanding on the notion that this figure might tell us something meaningful about social attitudes.

And, yes, maybe they have changed in some positive ways.

But Goldacre points out the key problem with drawing that conclusion from that figure: while more Down pregnancies are being brought to term, there is another factor that needs to be taken into account in order to place that in its correct context:

There has indeed been a 4% increase in Down’s syndrome live births in England and Wales from 1989 to 2006 (717 and 749 affected births in the two years respectively). However, since 1989 there has also been a far greater increase in the number of Down syndrome foetuses created in the first place, because people are getting pregnant much later in life.

What causes Down syndrome? We don’t really know, but maternal age is the only well-recognised association. Your risk of a Down syndrome pregnancy below the age of 25 is about 1 in 1600. This rises to about 1 in 340 at 35, and 1 in 40 at the age of 43. In 1989 6% of pregnant women were over 35 years of age. By 2006 it was 15%.

I was not aware of the age-at-birth link to Down syndrome. (My mother was about to turn 44 when I was born. 1 in 40 might sound like long odds to you, but they're not long enough if you ask me...)

But what does this shift in birth patterns mean for claims of a more caring society?


The National Down Syndrome Cytogenetic Register holds probably the largest single dataset on Down syndrome, with over 17,000 anonymous records collected since 1989, and one of the most reliable resources in the search for patterns and possible causal factors. They have calculated that if you account for the increase in the age at which people are becoming pregnant, the number of Down’s Syndrome live births in the UK would have increased from 1989 to 2006: not by 4%, but from 717 to an estimated 1454, if screening and subsequent terminations had not been available.

Except, of course, antenatal screening is widely available, it is widely taken up, and contrary to what every newspaper told you this week, it is widely acted upon. More than 9 out of ten women who have an antenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome decide to have a termination of the pregnancy. This proportion has not changed since 1989. This is the “decisions” that Felicity Finch, Radio 4, the Mail, the Times, the Mirror, and the rest are claiming more parents are taking: to carry on with a Down syndrome pregnancy. This is what they are taking as evidence of a more caring society. But the figure has not changed.

While I'm interested in this story largely as a cautionary tale for the misuse of statistical data leading to the misunderstanding of society (which is a problem that is magnified in a historical context, when the statistics are a bit more iffy and our other information about social context more partial), Goldacre points out that there is a more direct reason why such stories are problematic.

Crass and insensitive moral reasoning helps nobody. If I terminate a Down syndrome pregnancy, is that proof that society is not a warm caring place, and that I am not a warm caring person? For many parents the decision to terminate will be a difficult and upsetting one, especially later in life, and stories like this make a pretty challenging backdrop for making it. This would have been true even if their figures had been correct, but as is so often the case, for those with spare flesh to wave at strangers, their facts and figures are simply incorrect.
He also links to further background provided by the NHS, if you care to look.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Nuclear Music

This is a song that I heard on my way to work this morning:

The Buchanan Brothers, "Atomic Power" (1946)

The spookiness never ends.

Just in case you still need a Christmas present or two: there's a whole CD full of apocalyptic ditties revolving around the process of nuking the enemy. Groovy!

Christmas: Reloaded

Given that we are now more or less officially in the holiday season, my thoughts naturally turn to the topic of firearms.

And there are a few gaps on my wishlist that need filling.

First, via Boing Boing, we have this astonishing chainsaw bayonet attachment for an assault rifle.

It might be a bit unwieldy for home defence, but as Cory Doctorow and Neatorama agree, this might make an ideal anti-Zombie weapon.

And, as the video shows, it also kills pumpkins dead.

The creativity of the chainsaw bayonet reminded me of a video I'd seen some time ago (though I've forgotten where), demonstrating the FMG9 folding sub-machinegun:

Remember: 'if it gets nasty, get down to business.'

It makes an ideal stocking stuffer.

Elsewhere recently, Dale (who we are delighted to see has also said 'Hebbo!' to Tarvu) has had his eye on a Remington Model 700 XCR. ('Extreme conditions call for an extreme gun', as the promotional material says, and I can't fault that logic.)

However, he was unhappy with this picture.

What is the reason for Dale's discontent? After all, this is a very handsome rifle indeed. Well...

It's that this image was gotten to by clicking a hyperlink located directly beneath a heading of "Select Your Left-Hand Firearm" on a page titled "Remington Left-Hand Firearms." Does that look like a firearm for a left-handed shooter? Well, does it, punk? Do you feel lucky? No. It doesn't look like that, and I can tell you don't feel lucky. The bolt is sitting directly in the left-handed shooter's face -- exactly the sort of design characteristic that flags a rifle as an ungainly right-handed tool when it comes into the hands of a peace-loving, easygoing, handsome, charming, modest left-handed shooter.

Being right handed, I've never had to consider this (as in most other spheres of life, we northpaws are also well catered to by the arms industry), but in an Independent article that The Wife just sent me, I see that Dale is not alone.

None other than Angelina Jolie has battled a similar problem, we are informed:

[She] had to have guns specially made so that she could reload them easily for the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Just something else to keep in mind when buying guns for your loved ones this holiday season. (I am assured that Santa's workshop has a very capable gunsmith on staff, who is quite capable of making any necessary adjustments).

What relevance Ms. Jolie's reloading problems have to an article on the academic performance of left-handed students escapes me, but that's perhaps an issue for another time.

In the meantime, have a happy and safe holiday season.

But watch out for those pumpkins, and, if necessary, get down to business.

[UPDATE]: Should the chainsaw bayonet, the folding sub-machinegun or a left-handed rifle break your recession-era Christmas budget, you may just want to give your nearest and dearest gun lover an appropriately themed poster.

Like this one:

(via the fine people at Popcorn & Sticky Floors)

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I think of all the images in the Spiegel photo series on last night's terror attacks in Mumbai, this is the one that most effectively sums it up.

It simply shows what's left behind when people going about their daily business are mown down by fanatics.


(Image source.)

[UPDATE]: Fitting words for the above picture from Ophelia.

Lost in Theory

At the LRB, Elif Batuman has an enjoyable review of a new book, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida by Elisabeth Roudinesco.

The review is enjoyable; the book sounds pretty tedious, as is suggested by this excerpt, provided by Batuman:

Never has psychological suffering been more intense: solitude, use of mind-altering drugs, boredom, fatigue, dieting, obesity, the medicalisation of every second of existence . . . As for social suffering . . . it seems to be constantly on the rise, against a background of youth unemployment and tragic factory closings.

   Set free from the shackles of morality, sex is experienced not as the correlate of desire, but as performance, as gymnastics, as hygiene for the organs . . . How does one climax, and bring one’s partner to climax? What is the ideal size of the vagina, the correct length of the penis? How often? How many partners in a lifetime, in a week, in a single day, minute by minute? . . . It would seem impossible not to detect, in this curious psychologisation of existence . . . that is contributing to the rise of depoliticisation, the most insidious expression of what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze called ‘little everyday fascism’.

This sort of 'we've never had it so bad' declaration is tiresome enough--seriously, don't philosophers ever read any history?--but its irritatant factor is multiplied by Roudinesco's bizarre (but all-too-typical) mis-application of the word 'fascism'.

As I've pointed out before at some length, there is a particular kind of cultural-studies mindset that has adopted the f-word essentially to refer to anything deemed uncomfortable, inconvenient or, somehow, Bad.

More recently, we have seen this meme on the right, where key aspects of liberal thinking have been labelled, yes, fascism. (Excellent responses are available from Dave Neiwert.)

It should be obvious that the devaluation of the term is not only an analytical problem, but--considering the very real horror of actual fascism (old and new)--isn't it a bit galling to have the term thrown around with such wild abandon to refer to the comparatively genteel problems of Western orgasm addicts?

(Referring to Roudinesco's discussion of Deleuze, Batuman rightly wonders, 'More troubling yet, does 'fascism' in this discourse simply consist of being told what to do, for whatever reason, by anyone at all? Is it always like Sylvia Plath said: Daddy is "a man in black with a Meinkampf look"?')

Moreover: in what world is Roudinesco living? Does she really think that people experience sex 'as hygiene for the organs'? (Or as 'gymnastics'? Just where is she spending her time?! Sounds like fun!) Should we really regret the advance of medical science? Should we really elevate typical psychological dissatisfactions to 'fascism' (however 'little' and 'everyday'?). Is this not a tremendous impoverishment of our vocabulary for understanding the world?

Batuman is also sceptical:

A peculiar claim: how can Roudinesco possibly know whether more psychological and social suffering is caused by obesity, youth unemployment, factory closures and – one rather admires the leap – the hygienisation of sex, than, say, by the bubonic plague, the Spanish Inquisition or the slave trade? And haven’t any of our gains offset our losses? Thanks to hygienisation, sex has become less spontaneous . . . but we don’t all have syphilis.


‘Health fascism’, which appears in the OED, does of course have an empirical reality. It’s not great to be told that one should quit smoking, cut down on coffee, go to the gym more often and regularly submit to screenings for various cancers. Nobody likes to sit on a metal table, wearing a paper ‘gown’, awaiting the arrival of a doctor who is increasingly likely to be younger than oneself. But who is the fascist here: the medical institution or the human body? What can doctors do if our bodies crave things which are harmful to us?

Nor, as she correctly points out, is this a new problem:

Roudinesco seems to be describing not a topical crisis but a matter of ‘human nature’ in the longue durée. It’s true that Flaubert, whom some Marxists consider to be a Marxist visionary, did his share of railing against modern times; his complaints are, in their details, historically specific, and would provide material for an interesting Foucauldian history of complaining: when, exactly, did children become so unbearable? (Certainly, no later than the 18th century, and probably earlier. ‘Il n’y a plus d’enfants!’ Molière wrote in 1673.) But Flaubert’s primary target was larger, more amorphous, nearly timeless. ‘Human stupidity,’ he wrote in 1875, ‘is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.’ The implication is less that we have scaled historic heights of catastrophism, stupidity and complaining, than that humans have long been a catastrophic, stupid bunch of complainers.

I have, first of all, to thank Bautman for bringing that marvellous Flaubert quote to my attention. And her conclusion there has a lot to commend it.

However, as is typical of a certain kind of 'critical perspective' these days, Roudinesco is clearly not a fan either of the notion 'human nature' or of the body:

Roudinesco, however, attributes our stupidity, like our unhappiness, to political causes – specifically, to fascism. She is a strong advocate of ‘politicisation’, which appears to mean the redescription of everything one doesn’t like in terms of the Third Reich. Thus cognitive science, which uses ‘biological, neuronal or cerebral reasons to “explain” the supposedly innate differences between the sexes and the races’, turns out to be a mere step away from eugenics, which is synonymous with . . . Nazism!

If it were simply Roudinesco who thought this way, this wouldn't be a problem; however, this kind of equivalence (biological approaches to human thought and behaviour = fascism) is remarkably common in the humanities and social sciences.

Strangely enough, however, when some real brutality shows up, Roudinesco conceals it behind layers of theoretical posturing. Batuman describes Roudinesco's approach to understanding Louis Althusser's killing of his wife Hélène:

One can excuse Althusser for writing an unbalanced book, because he was deeply unbalanced when he wrote it. But Roudinesco, who refuses to treat people like objects or books as symptoms, is obliged to read his memoir as a heroic assertion of human autonomy. Althusser, she explains, was answering the imperative to transform the strangulation of Hélène ‘into a work’: ‘otherwise it would be endlessly reproduced, recounted, disseminated, falsified, interpreted, by countless witnesses or non-witnesses’ who would audaciously speak in place of the true ‘author of the crime’.


Nonetheless, having posited the murder of Hélène as a ‘work’, Roudinesco sets about reconciling it with the rest of Althusser’s output: viz, books of Marxist philosophy. [...] On this premise, Roudinesco sets out to rationalise Althusser’s spousal misdeeds by subjugating them to the ‘Louis Althusser’ which holds together a group of politico-philosophical texts. For example, she suggests that womanising – particularly, a long-term affair with a sexy Italian translator – was the method by which Althusser ‘learned to detach himself from the Stalinist tradition of Communism, and thus to read the works of Marx another way.’


I was no more persuaded by Roudinesco’s claim that the Althussers’ marriage ‘was made of the same turmoil, the same putting to death, the same repulsion, the same exaltation and the same fusion that united [Althusser] at the same time with the Communist Party, the asylum and psychoanalytic discourse’; or by Derrida’s characterisation of Althusser as the prisoner of ‘crimes perpetrated in the name of Communism’: ‘the killing of conceptuality, the murder of a woman of the Resistance, a militant of the Communist idea’. To a hygienised American reader, there is something grotesque in this description of a domestic crime as an expression of disillusionment with the Communist Party – or an abstraction on the level of ‘the killing of conceptuality’.

This 'hygienised American reader' has much the same response. And he is, moreover, bewildered by a theoretical position that has to explain Althusser's affair with a 'sexy Italian translator' via a somewhat tortured-sounding effort to link it to a transcendence of Stalinist understandings of Communism.

I mean...isn't there perhaps a, you know, simpler explanation? (It's not as if the marital transgressions of normal mortals typically require such high-flown analysis, especially when they involve the words 'sexy' and 'Italian'.)

In any case, I recommend the whole of Batuman's essay.

And this is true even if Alex Callinicos remains unconvinced. In a testy letter in the current LRB, he takes Batuman to task for allegedly getting some of her facts wrong, such as precisely in which book Deleuze and Guattari introduced the theoretical concept of the 'rhizome' (a.k.a., 'laterally proliferating heterogeneity', doncha know).

I'm far from an expert on their work (to be honest I refuse to invest the enormous effort into desciphering their mystifying prose unless someone can explain to me quickly and clearly why it might be worth doing so), but this seems a minor point in response to her (rather mild) criticisms of their work.

(By the way, I very much enjoyed Batuman digging out the following gem from D&G: '“Be the pink panther,” said the two authors, “and may your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon”. Yeah.)

He also disagrees with her claim (or rather 'her persistent repetition of the vulgar charge') that Foucault was a 'conspiracy theorist'. Instead, he says,
Foucault in his middle period affirms the omnipresence of power, but he conceptualises power as non-intentional, constituting subjects rather than expressing subjectivity, crystallising around unanticipated consequences.
This is a plausible summation of Foucault's thinking. Unfortunately, his texts and thinking--while often intellectually stimulating (I made use of some of his ideas in my book)--are often so vague as to allow many other kinds of interpretations, as Lawrence Stone pointed out long ago. And one of these interpretations has been a tendency toward a one-sided and at least quasi-conspiratorial view of things like medicine and science.

Moreover, while I am no fan of conspiracy theories, I think even they are often more convincing than the omnipresent, disembodied, subject-constituting 'power' that Foucault sometimes seemed to be positing. Responding to criticism of Foucault by proclaiming one of his theory's greatest weaknesses doesn't seem to me to be the best strategy, Dr. Callinicos.

Batuman blogs, by the way, here.