Thursday, May 27, 2010


From the inspired 'Dinosaur Comics', an argument:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vincere (film)

Apparently, famous Italian git Benito Mussolini was also a git to his mistress. Three hours well spent.

It appears that the film doesn't make as strong a case for this as it might have done (see this article in the Times: ).

But perhaps you're already supposed to know the story before you see the film. I imagine most Italians do.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Revanche (film)

Bleak, stunning, excellent. Not one for a first date.
You'll need an hour or so after to walk around staring sadly into the distance, smoking.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I wish I was Gay

Imagine what the world would be like if women's minds really were the same as men's.

Men have an absolutely omnivorous attitude to sex. A friend of mine the other day said, without trying to be provocative, offensive, or shocking, just in casual conversation: "I slept with a lot of biffas before I realised that pretty girls need sex too."

('Biffa' is British slang for an unattractive woman.)

This is the sort of comment that has women spitting feathers. It just doesn't make sense to them. Why would anyone act like that? Men are pigs.

Of course, any male not only instantly recognises the inner truth of the statement, but also catches the subtext, which is that the reason that the biffas are no longer being attended to is that the speaker has a lovely girlfriend who is likely to leave him if she suspects infidelity.

There is nothing as attractive as a woman you haven't slept with recently.

I'd imagine that most men's vision of paradise would be a place where they could have sex as many times a day as possible, with a different beautiful woman each time. If a balance needed to be struck between quantity and quality, I'm pretty sure that balance wouldn't be one very beautiful woman. The attitude of the women towards the man would not be a big consideration, although orgasms would be nice. There might also be cricket.

Whereas I'd imagine that most women's paradise would be a place where they could have sex as often as they wanted with one particular supremely attractive man who loved them. And if a compromise had to be struck, they'd take one man who loved them and one gorgeous lover who didn't particularly. And orgasms would be reserved for the second one. Cricket would be illegal.

Very different aims.

So if women's minds were the same as men's, the world would be one big clusterfuck. In warm countries every available surface would be covered in strangers fucking. In cold ones there'd be lots of warm places that could be rented by the hour.

After you'd shagged yourselves silly, you could go out and get drunk and talk about cricket. And have proper arguments where you argue for the fun of it without anyone taking it as a personal insult. No one would ever want to have a long complicated minefield of a conversation about feelings. Or shoes.

According to the excellent 'Tales of the City' novels of Armistead Maupin, this is a fair description of San Francisco in the days of gay liberation, but before AIDS put a stop to free love.

If you're a straight male, take a moment to imagine what it must be like to be gay. All you have to do is to imagine that everyone you know is a woman, and they all want to sleep with you.

Why would anyone not choose to be gay if they could?

It makes me worried for the sort of conservatives (always religious) who think there's some sort of choice involved in sexual orientation. That it's a temptation that can be resisted.

If it was any sort of temptation I wouldn't be resisting it for a minute.

But imagine that you were gay, and you were as attracted to all your friends as you now are to all your female friends. So you were surrounded by an infinite sea of willing partners.

But you had a magic book that told you that it was wrong to fuck boys, and that the little baby Jesus who loves you and watches everything you do and misses nothing would set fire to you if you did. And the fire would never go out and burn for all eternity. Because he loves you.

I imagine that your life might be a bit frustrating.

You might absolutely hate anyone who somehow hadn't got the message about the magic book, mightn't you? You might worry for their souls. You might think them weak and corrupt. You might want their activities illegal. You might want their temptations gone so that you wouldn't have to face up to denying yourself every day.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Please, please, please let this be true

Civil Liberties

* Scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the ContactPoint Database.
* Outlaw the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
* Extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
* Adopt the Scottish approach to stopping retention of innocent people’s DNA on the DNA database.
* Defend trial by jury.
* Restore rights to non-violent protest.
* A review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
* Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
* Further regulation of CCTV.
* Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
* A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
* End the detention of children for immigration purposes.

I just find this extraordinary. Somehow over the last fifteen years I've got the impression that the business of government is to spy, snoop, deceive, thieve, and oppress.

Maybe that's not true.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Four Lions (film)

I laughed so much during this film that I literally thought I was having some sort of heart attack. The rest of the audience seemed similarly amused. It's cruel, tragic, sympathetic, racist and Islamophobic, and all the better for all those things.

You kind of root for the heroes. Even though they're all morons. A bit like Inspector Clouseau, they live in a world where not everyone is an idiot, but they somehow make it through.

I wonder if it will be funny in ten years time? Slapstick and political humour date very quickly.

Oedipus Complex

Pretty much nicked from Steven Pinker's 'How the Mind Works'. Just trying to understand what he said by explaining it to myself:

One of the most important and influential memes of the twentieth century was Freud's idea of the Oedipal Complex.

This boils down to thinking that a lot of what we do as adults is down to the desire of a boy to fuck his mother, which is then repressed, leading to all sorts of weirdness.

Repression is a technical term meaning "If you deny you're feeling this, then that just proves you are. Nyahh, nyahh".

In the 'hydraulic theory of the mind', unreleased pressure can build up until it explodes. This theory is so deeply embedded in folk wisdom now that we use phrases like 'letting off steam', 'releasing the pressure', and 'throttling up to try to make Crewe by 16:53' almost without thinking.

One weird thing about this theory of the Oedipus Complex, that perhaps should have alerted people to difficulties, is that virtually all males find it ridiculous.

I trust that my mother will not be offended if I say that, although I can appreciate that she is a beautiful woman, and that in her thirties, when I was becoming a sexual being, she must have been hot indeed, I have never felt the slightest desire to knock her off.

Given my otherwise fairly omnivorous teenage lust, this is a strange datum that needs explaining all on its own.

The answer may be something called the Westermarck Effect. It's been suggested that people have an aversion to those they were reared with. Presumably the reason for this is somewhere in evolutionary biology.

If that's true, then it actually explains why Freud took his theory seriously.

Freud and his patients were wealthy Austrians. The custom of the time was for that class to have their children raised by wet-nurses and nannies. Without the childhood proximity to activate the Westermark effect, Freud and his patients would have found their own mothers as attractive as any other women.


All human beings are obsessed with status. In England it's generally called class. Kate Fox has written extensively on the subject in her wonderful book, "Watching the English".

Status is defined differently in different places. Londoners are obsessed with money. It is polite in London to show a new visitor round your house, showing them every room. Nowhere else in England is this normal behaviour with a new visitor, and provincials find the ritual strangely embarrassing. 

Houses in London are very expensive, and so house size is an honest signal of wealth there. One of the things a northerner notices in London is how poxy small the houses of wealthy Londoners are. The size of your house doesn't matter at all in Sheffield, where houses are cheap, and the size of your house mainly indicates how large a house you need, or even just how large a house you like.

People in Cambridge are interested in intelligence and learning. The subculture of the University has formal ranks, which were once marked by actual dress codes, remnants of which are still visible in the elaborate graduation ceremonies. 

Academic status isn't what it used to be, and so these distinctions are dying out. Cambridge is a wealthy city these days, with an acute land shortage. I expect the London custom will make it here one day.

As a boy growing up in Sheffield, I remember that people seemed obsessed with accents. Wealthy and educated people spoke more like southerners.

People with the native accent of the place were thought less of, by everyone including themselves. My grandfather once tried to teach me how to speak the local dialect: 'Weerwatterrunsoerweirin(glottal stop)wicker' is a place. But my grandmother caught him at it, and they had a serious row, in their fury both lapsing into their stronger childhood accents.

But there was also a strong back-reaction. I remember phrases like 'doesn't he have a lovely voice', but also 'stuck-up cunt', 'talks like a fairy' and 'southern poof'.

It wasn't just accent, either. Whenever I go home I get caught out by the breakfast/dinner/tea of the North vs. breakfast/lunch/dinner of the South. Writing this just now I had trouble putting the six in order. Calling dinner lunch in the North is an horrific piece of pretension. Moi?

It all seemed to matter so much to people, even though I think that everyone would have agreed that the whole thing was silly, if they'd ever stopped to think about it.

If you don't believe me, or think Sheffielders are silly people, rather than people with a silly hobby, then consider: How much do you care about spelling, or correct grammar?

And lets not have any of this rubbish abowt cleer communicaytion. It's not very difficulte to reed misspelled wurds, as long as youre respekting the fonetics ov the language and its orthografy. And thats the only sort of missteaks that a native speeker is going to make. Aktually writing in this stile is very liberating. I now find. Try it! You will lern things you didn't know you allredy knew.

But it does make you think that the writer is an idiot. And actually, you're not thinking 'idiot'. You're thinking uneducated. And you're not really thinking 'uneducated', either. What you're thinking is 'Working-class parents'.

This is of course very hard on dyslexics, who have a brain deformity that fakes the symptoms of poor education. So little Elektra is going to write like her daddy worked down a pit, beheading turkeys or whatever.

'Correct' spelling is at least easy enough to define.

The whole idea of 'correct grammar' is very suspect. What sort of 'correct' is it that prescribes 'Jack and I went to the pictures' when almost every English speaker naturally says 'Me and Jack went'?

Me and Jack are so hard-wired into the structure of the language that even very educated people with very educated parents need to think about us when writing. 

And one of the most comical mistakes you can make is to overcompensate and say 'Julie took Jack and I to the pictures'. People do this all the time. Other people sneer at them all the time. The crashing sound of self-betrayed pretension. You're copying what you've heard posher people say, but you haven't internalized the rule. Or you are posh, but you're also a bit dim.

Real grammar doesn't work like that. Foreign speakers make real grammar mistakes. Things like 'Will you take me to the pictures in your red big car?'. 

No native speaker, however ill-educated, needs to be told that that's strange. It just is, for no reason that's ever taught at school. The feeling when you hear it is the same queasyness as you feel when trying to work out the 'Jack and I' vs 'Jack and me' thing. It's the grinding of brain-gears being misengaged.

This doesn't prevent English children wasting hours and hours and hours on stupidities like spelling tests. And their parents of all classes being horrified when they're not very good at them. 

So what's the real point of spelling and grammar?

Well, it's like the Londoner's house tours, and the Sheffielder's accent neurosis. It's a status signal which is not explicitly recognised as anything so vulgar.

Why is it a good status signal? Because it's difficult to fake.

If you can't spell, you can't spell. If you don't know the artificial formal grammar of your language, you can't fake it. And even if you do know it, it takes practice to distort your speech and writing to fit the rules. In order to speak and write correctly you need an expensive education.

This explains the 'Jack and I' thing. It's not actually English grammar at all. It's just wrong from a linguist's point of view.

Once upon a time, scholars, who all spoke Latin as a foreign language that they had learned for professional reasons, wondered about the structure of English.

They knew that there are structures to languages, because Latin is a very different language to English, and in order to learn it, they had had to learn a lot of structural rules.

Of course the Romans didn't know anything about these rules. They just spoke their language. And almost certainly the structural rules that the Latin speaking scholars had learned must have failed to capture many details in the everyday speech of the Romans. But the rules were pretty good, if what you wanted to do was read the surviving Latin literature, and more importantly, communicate with other scholars in other countries, who knew the same rules.

So the scholars tried to make a formal system to capture how English was spoken. Of course they were guided by the rules they already knew. From that point of view, it's obvious why it has to be "Jack and I" rather than "Jack and me" in places where you'd say "I" rather than "me", and vice versa.

I wonder how the scholars explained to themselves that most English people got it wrong? Probably they told themselves that the people were not as clever as they were themselves.

So they ended up making up a set of rules to describe English, which actually describe a slightly Latinised version of English instead, and then blaming English speakers (including themselves) for not conforming to the rules.

So that's why we're taught to say "Jack and I". Remember how many times your mother, or your teacher, had to tell you this? Remember overcompensating, and using "Jack and I" when you should have been using object case? Maybe your mother or your teacher's knowledge stopped there and you always say "Jack and I", which is worse than the original mistake?

I was lucky. I learnt Latin. As a result I made the same mistake the scholars made. But that's the right mistake to make. It always feels a bit weird speaking like that, but I can think fast enough that if I'm concentrating, I can override "Me and Jack" in subject position, and say "Jack and I" instead.

Now, do you remember being corrected for saying 'red big car' when you meant 'big red car'? No? Somehow that rule is just there, and no native speaker ever gets it wrong, even though very few of us can say what the rule is.

What the Jack and I rule is, is a rule which is difficult to remember, left over from an analysis of English grammar made a long time ago by Latin-speaking scholars who were trying their best with bad tools, that can be taught, amongst lots of other difficult rules.

Similarly with the famous split infinitive. In Latin the infinitive is one word, so it can't be split. In English, "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is the natural thing to say. Boldly to go? To go boldly? Piss off.

Another example is the canard about not ending a sentence with a preposition. As Churchill pointed out, the sort of rule up with which one refuses to put.

The fact that no native English speaker can ever internalize these rules in the effortless way that we know that red big cars don't exist, and never make that mistake, is a sign that the rules don't fit with how language works in the brain.

I also present for your consideration your/you're, it's/its, there/their/they're. If you've ever got one of these wrong, pity the poor French, with their complicated conjugation system. Easy for a foreign speaker to learn, quite hard for the Frogs, who are trying to learn strange rules to spell words that they thought were all the same when they were babies puzzling out how to hard-wire their brains to make sense of the funny sounds their parents made.

And if you still think there's some kind of rationality to it, why is 'It is I' correct English, when 'C'est je' is so utterly wrong in French? The Academie prides itself on its rationality and purity.

Or explain the mistake in the following sentence 'The doctor's practise was insufficiently diligent, so his practise shrank'. God forgive me, I notice that sort of thing from time to time. I doubt one Englishman in one hundred knows the rule that explains it. But nobody would ever give advise.

So what's the rational English speaker to do?

How can we give our language its natural grammar and a phonetic spelling system so that no-one ever needs to spend precious childhood hours memorizing and internalizing this rubbish?

Let's consider:

You could defect unilaterally. Just write everything as you'd say it without thinking, and spell everything tricky as it sounds.

No more professional jobs for you. Your CV is straight in the bin before anyone's even got to the section where you describe your linguistics research.

You could decide not to care. You could spell well yourself, so that you're not communicating 'not fit to be left alone with sharp objects' in every e-mail. But you could deliberately ignore errors as far as possible in other people's writing and speech.

You'd miss vital clues about intelligence, diligence, and background. You'd spend far too long talking to people before you decided that it wasn't worth the bother. 

You'd give random offence to people from different backgrounds by making comments that are acceptable in your own circle but not in theirs. Consider 'bloody immigrants' against 'chav-mobile'. Both perfectly acceptable in the circles in which they're acceptable. Both exceedingly offensive in the wrong place. 

If you were in a position to hand out jobs, you'd interview all the wrong people. You'd waste hours coming to conclusions that you could have come to very quickly. If you got your decisions right at all.

So it would be difficult as an individual, and most unlikely to catch on.

What about as a society?

We could abolish the teaching of spelling and grammar in schools. Just refuse to waste any more time on it.

Ha, ha, bloody ha. People would cheat. Educated parents would educate their children. A certain artificiality of style would mark the writing of the privately educated. Imagine the awe-inspiring lack of smugness with which this sentence might be spoken.

Spelling and grammar would become more reliable status indicators than they are now. At least it's now possible for a working class child to acquire the habits of his betters.

Here's another thought:

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which although publicly funded are almost the ultimate bestowers of good education/intelligence/diligence markers in the form of their degrees, could mandate the use of 'Natural English' in exams. Points could be deducted for old-style 'Vulgar Spelling' and 'Bourgeois Grammatical Mistakes'.

Our brightest and cleverest youngsters would have to spend time unlearning their painfully acquired habits. In time, because they always do, they'd become our highest social class.

And people would start to cheat. To copy. Luckily it wouldn't be very hard! And I reckon that the problem would be gone in a generation.

I trust that the University Senates will leap happily upon my modest proposal in the holy names of Equality and Reason. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Hopefully people noticed the tongue-in-cheek elements of my last post:

I was planning to follow it up with a rational argument for voting Green.

But actually, that's kind of wrong. It would be a rational argument for voting Green.

Not, note, a rational argument, which, when followed through to its logical conclusion would tell me how to vote. Which had maybe happened to come to the conclusion that Green would be good.

So, obviously, even though I haven't gone to the trouble of thinking about it from any kind of sane point of view, my mind is already made up.

And there's no point in thinking up rational justifications, because whatever arguments lead towards doing something dreadful like voting Labour, I'll just ignore. And any tiny little shred of reason to vote Green will be elevated out of all proportion in my mind.

Because let's face it, that's what we are. It's called 'confirmation bias', and it means that we ignore most evidence that contradicts our beliefs, whilst taking any further evidence in favour and filing it carefully under 'arguments for'.

I wonder if this how everyone decides how to vote?

In fact, given that I'm a clever and well read man who takes an interest in current affairs and reads a newspaper daily, could my retarded decision process actually be amongst the more rational and well considered ones?

And yet British democracy somehow consistently manages to produce a relatively uncorrupt state whose principal concern seems to be to do the best for its people.

Fairly remarkable, when you think about it.

The history of government in the world is not good. Usually it's a parasitic entity. Better than anarchy for the people that live under it, but only by accident.

It's probably worth asking how our society managed to get into its current rather paradisical democratic state.

Somehow the warring warlords and absolute monarchs of the middle ages managed to get their teeth drawn, and their powers usurped by an elected assembly of the people.

We also need to ask whether our current state is stable, and what sort of forces might destroy it.

Are there ways of making it even better, without somehow accidentally making the magic go away?

Does democracy work well in any sort of society? What about when you've got two distinct ethnic groups of comparable sizes? Are there any examples of it working in such a situation?

I guess South Africa might be one, but it doesn't look that stable to me.

Zimbabwe is more of a counterexample.

Is a democracy stable? What can bring it down? Is it an inevitable final state of a society? Can a long term stable democracy be subverted by internal forces?

Does a dictatorship that achieves absolute control and stability become gentler in accordance with some law of nature, until it becomes a free state?

Does a democracy under internal or external threat become less free?

Is this even a reasonable way to think about it, or is the whole thing due to great men and butterflies, unpredictable and uncontrollable?

There's no way to know in abstract. We have to look for evidence. The problem is that democracy is a fairly recent phenomenon. An untried experiment. 

Despite the fact that it seems to have been an English ideal, universal male suffrage in England dates only from 1918, and universal suffrage 1928. So it's lasted about eighty years so far. One lifetime.

Very old British people will remember that their fathers did not have the right to vote. This didn't make them slaves, but it did mean that the country wasn't organised in their interests.

The oldest existing democracies in the world are the American Colonies, which seem to have been founded as free democracies, but under English law and the Crown. Somehow they broke free of England and eventually united to form the United States.

Of course, some of the individual states then regretted surrendering their independence to a central authority, and their attempt at seccession was the bloodiest war that had ever happened. But it all got sorted out in the end.

Eventually the place became so benevolent that they extended the right to vote to their livestock. Of course I'm being deliberately offensive there, but that's what it must have felt like at the time.

Perhaps future generations will consider our refusal of the vote to young people, and the resulting oppression they suffer (you think compulsory schooling isn't a form of slavery?) to be equally obscene.

France had universal adult male suffrage in 1792, but wasn't stable. Universal male suffrage was finally established in 1914, and has been stable since, apart from a period of occupation by a German dictatorship which itself arose from a democracy.

Spain introduced universal male suffrage in 1812, but its democracy fell into dictatorship in the 1930s and wasn't restored until 1970.

So we have many examples of democracy failing, and several where it is too early to tell.

The only persistent democracy in the world is America. Coincidentally the only place where socialism was never popular. Presumably its people have never felt oppressed.

Some of the ancient Greek city-states were democratic, although not in our sense. What happened to them? If conditions in the ancient world were in some sense not right for democracy, why did their systems arise. If conditions were right, what made their systems fall?

Would Athens without Rome have resurrected itself and carried on?

Why did Rome itself, given its stability and power, not follow the inevitable path to democracy, but instead go the other way, from the Republic into oppression, hereditary government and an eventual collapse which may well have felt like a liberation to its citizens? (Think 'liberation of Iraq' rather than 'liberation of France'.)

There are three systems I can think of that might be called democratic.

In one, the people as a whole get to vote on every law. This is so different from our current system as to be difficult to imagine. Let's call it demarchy. The internet may have made it feasible in a huge state like the United Kingdom.

There's the first-past-the-post system which we use, which pretty much guarantees a two party alternating dictatorship.

Before universal suffrage, we swapped between Tory and Liberal government, representing roughly aristocracy/landowners vs. bourgeois/free trade.

After the proles got the vote, the Liberal party declined and the Labour party rose, representing the interests of the proletariat.

The electoral system seems to have squeezed the Liberal party between the other two, so that it became a rump force. The Tory party then became the party representing both aristocracy and business, which left it unwilling to defend the aristocracy against the punitive taxes which destroyed it.

These days, with the death of socialism as an idea, and the disappearance of the industrial working class, the Labour party has been desperately trying to abandon its old ideas and become more representative of the more liberal instincts, while the Tories have stayed pretty much where they were.

However the Liberals seem to be picking up a lot of Labour votes this time. In the natural course of things I'd imagine that one of these two parties would cease to exist meaningfully, and become a rump party, a "protest vote".

But the Liberals, remembering their long wilderness years, want to change our electoral system to the third, proportional representation system. And it looks like they may get the chance.

I worry.

Even the relatively minor change to Alternative Vote, rather than first-past-the-post, seems to ensure permanent government by the central party.

Could it effectively lead to a one party state?

Does the occasional thrashing, the peaceful revolution of our periodic change of government, actually provide a needed cleansing effect on the system. Is that why our politics is uncorrupt? Governments always seem to fall amidst accusations of corruption.

What do we know? Are alternative vote and PR systems safe and fair, or are they a step on the road to dictatorship or oligarchy? Do they inexorably lead to corruption, or do they produce moderate government trying to make everyone happy?

Do we have any data?

Ghost (film)

Excellent, suspenseful thriller. Adapted from Robert Harris' Ghost.

Doesn't do justice to the excellent book, which is utterly and chillingly believable, simply because the (changed) conclusion doesn't really hold water, and the cuts to the details of the plot (made to compress the story) have left some of the scenes looking unlikely.

However, all that's only a problem after the film's over. While you're watching it, it's really rather good.