Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thinking only nice thoughts

To clear the palate of the last, rather negative post before moving on to more pleasant things, I can only recommend Geoff's collection of his best photographs from 2009.

Especially this one. (We had such a baby bird in our yard this year, but didn't manage to get a photo.)

Thanks Geoff!

Danger: Unreadable Flying Objects

We've had a rather nice, quiet time here in the OD household over the holidays so far (though it's been a bit too drearily rainy outside).

It's been good to withdraw from the world a bit, perhaps except for catching up on the latest terrorist panic: is it just me, or is it a particularly sad comment on the state of the world when one of ABC News's biggest recent scoops seems to be publicising pictures of 'a singed pair of underwear with a packet of powder sewn into the crotch'?

Our retreat into the domestic cave has been accompanied by trying to focus on some of the real-world writing we need to do, hence the relative hiatus in any light blogging recently.

Which may continue; we'll see.

But I felt the urge to break radio silence tonight while reading Steven Shapin's lengthy LRB article on Darwin Year 2009.

Not after reading the article, I stress, since I haven't finished it yet.

I may not ever, in fact.

An distant early warning blip sounded in my mind when visitors to the Galapagos were referred to as 'tourists making scientific haj'; a few more followed when Shapin recounts the majority of Darwin Year events in a tone of condescending mockery.

The alarms rang a bit more loudly when Shapin--apparently approvingly--offers another quote:

‘Every age moulds Charles Darwin to its own preoccupations, but the temptation is hard to resist,’ Philip Ball noted in the Observer. ‘In the early 20th century, he became a prophet of social engineering and the free market. With sociobiology in the 1970s, Darwinism became a behavioural theory, while neo-Darwinist genetics prompted a bleak view of humanity as gene machines driven by the selfish imperatives of our DNA.’

Beyond question, the first part is generally right, and, indeed, Darwinism has been misused in all kinds of ways.

Still, the sweeping reference to 'bleak' views of humanity and the 'selfish' imperatives of DNA caused me to nearly throw the paper across the room. I'm used to people making this reference who haven't managed to get past the title of Dawkins's 1976 book, but Shapin is a historian of science, so I'm assuming he has.

But one of the underlying aims of Shapin's article is to reveal the shocking true agenda of many of the Darwin enthusiasts over the last year--Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett prominent among them--i.e., to promote atheism.

Which Shapin apparently thinks is foolish, judging by his sarcasm:

The International Darwin Day Foundation, acting as publicist and clearing house for hundreds of the year’s global events, is administered by the American Humanist Association, a secularist pressure group which defends the civil liberties of the endangered species of the American godless, and hands out annual awards to its chosen ‘Humanist of the Year’ (past winners include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker). For the Darwin Day Foundation (whose advisory board includes Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson and Pinker), as for other sponsors, Darwin Day is less about a historical figure than an occasion for extending versions of scientific materialism and rationalism to ever new cultural domains, encouraging an appreciation of ‘science and the role of humans in developing the Scientific Method that permitted the acquisition of an enormous amount of verifiable scientific knowledge, that is now available to modern humans’.

One can almost hear the phrase 'militant atheist' echoing in the background.

Shapin raises the the hoary old straw-man 'panadaptationist' critique (originating with Stephen Jay Gould) of Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker which verges into his letting us know that he Disapproves Strongly of evolutionary psychology (EP); unfortunately, he demonstrates as much subtle knowledge of that as he does of The Selfish Gene, summed up by his quip that it basically means 'Nature beats up nurture all the time.'

I know that EP's not everybody's thing; it's a wide-ranging field, most of it quite interesting and sensible, some of it a bit batty.

But I happen to be reading a fair amount of EP and EP-related material at the moment while preparing for an article that The Wife and I are working on, and--as is all too often the case--it bears little resemblance to the caricatured intellectual Gleichschaltung Shapin (like others) depicts.

(I may be feeling a bit touchy on this point, as I found out only yesterday about the death a few months ago of Margo Wilson, who, with her husband Martin Daly, was a pioneer in EP perspectives, especially on homicide. Her work has been important and inspirational to me over the last decade or so, and it is careful, subtle and methodologically most of the serious academic work in EP that I've read, in fact.)

At about this point, Steven Pinker is referred to as 'EP Thought Leader'.

At about this point, I could not resist throwing the paper across the room.

I don't have the energy to deal with this at any further length. I'm used to reading (or rather avoiding) this kind of crap at Comment is Futile, but I hold the LRB (perhaps naively) to a higher standard.

I'm almost tempted to make a new year's resolution: only to read and comment on things in my personal life that make me happy.

Judging by recent experience this would, however, mean that I would mostly be writing about The Wife, horror films, heavy metal and handguns.

And I'm not sure how much of that you all could all stand.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Off with the DJ's head

Actually, I find the "inappropriate comment" for which comedian Tony Biggs got sacked by some obscure Midland radio station quite funny (but who am I? Just a poor old misanthrope with a penchant for violent slapstick):

"I then went into an old riff about how people say the royal family are good for tourism, but the French beheaded theirs and people still visit France. The next record was George Michael's Last Christmas, so I made some sort of comment about 'going from one Queen to another' as a parody of a cheesy DJ."
Yet another case of political correctness gone mad, though I reckon that for Biggs the whole experience will ultimately turn out to have been an excellent career move.

All this reminds me of the following:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let it snow, early 70s style

Given the wintry chaos that has struck in recent days, we thought it might be nice to remember a time when we could more wholeheartedly enjoy the white fluffy stuff.

Ahhh. Memories...

Be careful out there.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A typically suggestive manor

And while we're wallowing in the world of British media stupidity...

There does seem to be something wrong (or, alternatively, exquisitely right) about the caption to this engrossing article about comedy force of nature Russell Brand:

It's only the fucking Mail, I know, but still...

A way with...words?

It might just be me, but I find it a rather sad statement that Katie Price has managed to reach number 59 on the list of the 100 bestselling authors of the last decade.

That's £21.8 million in books.

I.e., what people are willing to shell out to read what Ms. Price has to say.

And that puts her 14 places behind Shakespeare.

There are moments when (just for a moment or two) I think that climate collapse/a giant asteroid collision/space invasion can't come soon enough to wipe this sorry species from the planet.

Though I may, I realise, be exaggerating.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hello, Bomb? Are you with me?

Dan O'Bannon, the co-writer of Dark Star (from which the title dialogue comes) and Alien has died at the young age of 63.

The Alien series is one of my favourite collection of films.

Thanks, Dan, for all the memories.

Getting into the Christmas spirit

As usual, we've been largely unsuccessful in sending out Christmas cards this year. A few lucky souls will actually receive real-world, hand-written tokens of seasonal cheer; but most of our friends and family will have to be content with something more ephemerally digital.

Long live the internet, I say.

Still, despite being an admitted failure when it comes to writing and mailing Christmas cards, I have an appreciation for good ideas when it comes to those bits of cardstock that are meant to maintain friendships and encourage seasonal spirit.

Like the ones available from Dictator Goods, which contain inspiring messages like the following, attributed to Genghis Khan:

The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.
As good as that is (even better than the similar--and probably borrowed--version offered by Conan), it might be too wordy. In which case, you may prefer something more succinct, like this observation by Niccolo Machiavelli:

Before all else, be armed.
(Of course, one wishes to note--urged on by The Wife--that our Niccolo was hardly a 'dictator', but rather a very clear sighted and sensible man living in a dangerous world.)

No doubt your local gun shop has a Christmas special or two still available that might make a handsome companion to this card and could happify someone close to you this year.

There are, for example, the good people at JJ's Pawn Shop in Beaumont, Texas:

Merry Christmas, y'all!

(Dictator Goods reference via Andrew)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In the burning fuselage of my days

Somehow I missed the fact that, back in October, the Mountain Goats made an appearance on the Colbert Report. This was in connection with their new album The Life of the World to Come, which is excellent and more than a little unsettling.

This song is a pretty good sample of why, on both counts.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Mountain Goats - Psalms 40:2
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

The Mountain Goats, 'Psalms 40:2' (Which reads: 'He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.')

I can think of worse ways to mark the 1,000th post of this here humble blog.


(Via Decibel.)

[UPDATE] I see that Pitchfork has an interesting interview with John Darnielle about the new album.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A car is woman's servant...not her master

Things have been a bit auto-themed here in this household over the last few days (though not in a good way), so I suppose it's as auspicious a time as any to offer the following late 1920s adverts as handsome additions to my historical bycatch series.

As did some other ads in that period, this one might be slightly playing on women's recently equalised status as voters in Britain, and the related perceptions (whether positive or negative) of the 'modern woman' which became rather a media fixation at that time.

(Click for a larger image)
Sunday Express, 13 July 1930, p. 11.

The text, in case you don't want to squint:

Woman takes the wheel

These are the days when women really drive. A car is woman's servant...not her master. And it's Pratts 'High Test'--no other kind--for the modern woman-at-the-wheel. Pratts 'High Test'...because it gives bigger mileage without costing more. Because it puts life inot the engine...power...snap...speed...sparkle, and always starts up instantly.'

Um...sparkle? Must be a chick thing.

Anyway, the next one is a bit more mysterious, in so far as the concept of 'motoring chocolate' is a new one to me.

Daily Herald, 8 April 1927, p. 5.

The Best thing to go Motoring on

Rowntree's Motoring Chocolate is a delicious combination of the famous Plain York (or Milk) Chocolate with whole blanched almonds and raisins. It is made specially nourishing for all who enjoy motoring and the open air.

'Especially nourishing.'

Must be those raisins.

Happy motoring.


I love it when humble invertebrates confirm the precepts and propositions of contemporary "theory". Like these here Indonesian octopuses (yes, that's right, puses) who - with their sophisticated use of coconut halves as sleigh-like contraptions - seem to subscribe to Donna Haraway's wildest prosthetic fantasies:

Transhumanity affirmed by cephalopods! Cyborg theory lives!

Obviously, this news item calls for an appropriate soundtrack. It's so quiet in the blue deep:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do thou the substance of my matter see

While we're on the topic of The Pilgrim's Progress: A student in one of my seminars, in which we're reading - among other things - John Bunyan's Puritan allegory, has pointed me towards a recent film version of the book.

The trailer confirms my worst fears: the film is an abominable piece of evangelical literalism run riot.

Could it be that transatlantic crossings do terrible things to your higher interpretive skills - such as annihilate the ability to distinguish allegory from realism (a genetic mutation subsequently passed onto your offspring home, home on the range)?

Even the semi-educated tinsmith Bunyan, in 1678, was aware of this distinction, which he was careful to refer to several times in The Pilgrim's Progress. Hence in the book, he tells us, he uses "types, shadows and metaphors", "figures and similitudes", "fancies", "dreams" and "parables" to bring across his deeper message.

This method not only has a Biblical precedent, as Bunyan points out, it also has a didactic effect - making things more plain to see:

I find that Holy Writ in many places
Hath semblance with this method, where the cases
Doth call for one thing to set forth another:
Use it I may then, and yet nothing smother
Truth's golden beams, nay, by this method may
Make it cast forth its rays as light as day.

So when, at the beginning of Book I of The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan describes his protagonist Christian as a man "with a great burden upon his back", he emphatically does not mean that he has a grimy heap of sackcloth tied across his shoulders, as the makers of this film do. He is simply, really, truly distressed about the sinfulness of the world.

How can this statement be sausaged into total absurdity? Wasn't the original text read, I wonder, prior to writing the script? Didn't people bother to heed the words of old-world Bishop Bunyan, who warns of exactly this simplistic one-to-one?

Put by the curtains, look within my veil;
Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail:
There if thou seekest them such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.

In utter despair of my fellow men, I leave the final word to John Bunyan's reputed descendant, Carnaby Street pop chick Vashti Bunyan (there is, I think, a family resemblance):

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Musical encounter of the third kind (Miley Cyrus edition)

Here's why I simply lurve my drive to work: it keeps me connected to what is going on in the real world. Thanks to my involuntary radio encounters (and isn't commercial radio a little like the voice of fate, sayeth Slavoj, telling you that this is the song chosen for you and that you will be listening to until the very end - whether or not you like it?), I'm exposed to experiences I would normally be unaware of or even avoid. The banal pseudo-heroics of Reamonn, for instance, or the bland boredom of Status Quo.

But also: poetic teen self-pity disguised as world-weary middle-aged ennui - all ironically arranged to an upbeat little tune.

The latter is what I heard today: A song by a female singer in her mid-thirties (judging by the sound of her voice), with (probably) several failed pregnancies and marriages under her belt and a meth-addicted American mastiff called Bronco in her trailer kitchen in Flagstaff, AZ (complete with leaking tap).

This is what she sang to me:

There's always gonna be another mountain.
I'm always gonna wanna make it move.
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose.
Ain't about how fast I get there.
Ain't about what's awaiting on the other side.
It's the climb.

"You go sister", I'm thinking in total sympathy, as the little French car is relentlessly transporting me along the Autobahn towards another day of tedious meetings and intellectual despair. "Don't I know the feeling? We should meet for coffee one of these days."

What I'm loving in particular - apart from the stubborn self-assurance in the singer's voice - is the quasi Buddhist cliché that the path is already the end and aim of all our endeavours on which her pained wailing peaked.

It's the climb that counts, man. The Climb!

"How philosophical", I'm thinking. "How symbolic". This song is, quite obviously, "The Waste Land" for the 'noughties - only with a mountain instead of a red rock.

Or The Pilgrim's Progress for the (old) MTV generation (that is, people like me and the middle-aged singer in her trailer in the desert with the bleary-eyed dog).

Well, Pustekuchen. Turns out the singer is none other than 17-year old Miley Cyrus, who is not only the daughter of a B-list country crooner (beloved by line dancers world wide), but also the godchild of one chesty old lady with candy floss hair. Miley Cyrus, the chipmunkey Disney star, who in 2007 was worth 18,2 Mio USD and who earns between 15 and 25 Mio USD per film role.

Miley Cyrus, whose annual fake bake allowance would easily pay for the bathroom renovation we've been saving up for for years.

The unfairness of the world hit me like a tsunami: how come that some people suffer just as much as others, for a fraction of the income?

And does Miley's manager seriously believe that with this kind of masquerade she will expand the average age of her fan base beyond eight?

And what the heck was Deutschlandradio Kultur doing advertising the EP that contains such a transparently imperialistic attempt at Lebensraumerweiterung market expansion?

After that instructive piece of popular ideology I was well-steeled for what was to come later in the day. So I guess I have to thank Miley Cyrus for reminding me - cheerfully, mind - that the world is a hypocritical hell hole where you are being ripped off at every corner.

But I'll be strong.

And carry on.



Whoa-oh yeah.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sunday shouldn't be like every day

Oh yes, I remember the days when I too wandered about town in an oversized coat and a scowl:

But today - aged beyond recognition and living a life when every day (including Sunday) is decidedly unlike Sunday - I have begun to appreciate the quiet days when towns are sleepy and shops are shut.

As they are still, mostly, on a Sunday in Germany (which Anglo-American friends and family have tended to find puzzling, if not a violation of one of their inalienable rights).

And so I was immensely pleased by the recent ruling by the German Federal Constitutional Court that the liberal pre-Christmas Sunday opening hours in Berlin are unconstitutional. Atheist or not, I think people deserve a rest from getting or spending, to be free to do ... nothing in particular. That is a pastime we should earnestly cultivate.

And on that note I'm off to ... do nothing in particular. Toodlepip.

'Four tuneful Teutons' (mit dem Kontrabass)*

Nineteenth-century mathematician Charles Babbage is rightly recognised for his pioneering work in what we would today understand as computer science.

But his efforts to purge the London streets of German street musicians have, to my knowledge, been hitherto under-appreciated.

The following comes from a lengthy article in The Times in 1860 which I found referenced in Panikos Panayi's German Immigrants in Britain during the Nineteenth-Century 1815-1914.

I have shortened it somewhat and added some paragraph breaks:

It would be a positive commercial advantage to all Londoners who live by the sweat of their brain to compromise with Mr. Gladstone for an extra penny of Income-Tax if he would undertake to put down the street musicians of London. Why should there not be a tax upon organs, and hurdy-gurdies, and German boys, and cornopeans and a double tax upon those hideous bagpipes which literally poison the air of London with their horrible screeching discord? [...]

What would not a hard-worked Londoner who is compelled to depend for the subsistence of his family upon the condition of his brain give for the blessed privilege of silence? No matter what your work may be—if it be of an intellectual kind, or if it tasks the nervous system—so long as the work must be done in London you are stopped by noise. We must have children, housemaids must carry coal-boxes up and down stairs, and horses must have water; but there is no reason why a parcel of foreign raggamuffins should be allowed to infest our streets, and make the fulfilment of obligations which already task the overwrought brain severely enough tenfold more burdensome and destructive to health and life.

Scarcely is your attention fixed upon your work when an abominable organ intrudes ‘The Power of Love,’ or some such dismal melody, upon your notice; or a parcel of Ethiopian serenaders assume that you are a Buffalo girl, and persist in the inquiry if you can’t ‘come out tonight?’

Go to the window and remonstrate, and see what you will take by your motion. The instant the fellow with the tambourine catches sight of your indignant face, he tosses his jingling instrument up in the air, or bumps it against his smutty face in the fullness of his satisfaction, while the fellow who works the ‘bones’ goes through a series of grotesque antics, which may be highly diverting to the little boys and the idlers, but the noise has spoiled the morning’s work, which is not at all diverting to a hard-working man. [...]

On Wednesday last, Mr. Charles Babbage, the mathematician, who resides in Dorset-street, Manchester-square, summoned four German brass band musicians before Mr. Secker, the police magistrate of Marylebone, upon a charge of annoying him with their noise, after they had been requested to depart from the neighbourhood of his house, and a reasonable cause had been assigned for the request. Mr. Babbage was engaged with his studies, when these fellows came before his door and opened fire with their instruments.

He went out and asked them to go away, but they recommenced playing and refused to move. Mr. Babbage went in search of a constable, and when he came back he found that they had moved to the front of a neighbouring house, but so close at hand that the noise was just the same disturbance as before. The owner of this house, as it appeared, liked their music, and desired them to play on. When the constable came up he ordered the musicians to move off, but this they refused to do, and consequently he removed them to the station-house. [...]

There is an idea prevalent among these people that they are not compellable to move on, unless they are informed that there is actual illness in a house; but it is to be hoped that Mr. Secker’s decision of Wednesday last will go some way towards dispelling this delusion. ‘No one,’ said the Magistrate, ‘has a right to play his noisy instruments within the hearing of persons who are pursuing grave occupations. The street is not to be infested with persons who disturb the inhabitants.’ [...]

The conclusion was that the four tuneful Teutons who had obstructed the thoroughfare—who had annoyed Mr. Babbage—and who had resisted the command of the constable to move on, were fined in the mitigated penalty of 5s. each; but with an intimation that if ever they made their appearance in Marylebone Police-court again the sterner fine of 2l. a head was hanging over them.

There was a subsequent and smaller case disposed of summarily by analogy, the gist of which was that Gatino—probably Gaetano—Circeoni, an Italian, was also fined 5s. for playing an instrument, also to the annoyance of Mr. Babbage, and, in default of payment, his instrument was detained. A musical fanatic who was present in court, being touched with sympathy for the misfortune of the wandering musician, paid the fine, and Circeoni was discharged to the further annoyance of the human race.

The perpetual stress upon the nervous system caused by the unceasing noises of London indeed is a prolific source and aggravation of cerebral disease. Go where you will, or arrange your matters how you will, it is almost impossible to find quiet. [...]

The Times, 2 July 1860, p. 8.

(*Title reference)