30 April, 2007

Why Some People Don't Eat Yoghurt

I'm an omnivore. I'll eat pretty much anything that's edible (which, of course, excludes MacDonald's burgers, calamari, and textured vegetable protein.) The point is, I have no serious moral objections to killing animals for food, although I do have threecaveats on that:

  1. The animal must not be self-aware to any obvious extent. This rules out people and the other great apes, monkeys, whales, dolphins and, probably, squid (doubly-safe there, then, guys).
  2. The animal must not suffer during it's life. This rules out veal, factory-farmed chickens, and pâté de fois gras, for example.
  3. The animal must not suffer during its death. This rules out almost anything that is hunted rather than farmed, and almost all yoghurt.
Yes, I said yoghurt, and no, I don't care how many lactobateria are killed to make everybody's favourite dairy product. The problem with yoghurt is that almost every brand available in the supermarkets contains 'halal gelatine'. Gelatine is a thickener and it is obtained by boiling up various body parts from cows (like their feet). Halal is an Arabic word meaning 'permissible'. In this context, it means 'permissible under Islamic dietary laws.' More specifically, in the case of the gelatine in my yoghurt, it means that the cows it came from have been killed by slitting their throats and letting them bleed to death (the method is called 'dhabiha').

Why would anyone do such a thing, you ask? Well, it's a religious thing. The Muslim deity says you can't eat an animal's blood (so no black pudding in Indonesia then.) The people who believe in this particular god have worked out that bleeding an animal to death is the best way to go. In my country, where people tend to believe in different gods, they kill big animals by firing a bolt from a gun onto the animal's skull. This stuns the beast and they kill it while it is unconscious. I ask you, if you had to choose, would you rather be whacked on the head and killed, or have your throat cut and bleed to death while still awake?

I know there isn't a lot to choose between them but, in my view, there is no reason at all to make an animal suffer one second longer than it needs to. And I don't care what your particular deity says on the matter. Believe whatever nonsense you like – all that matters to the poor animal is the way you treat it. There is even scientific evidence that draining a dead animal of its blood is just as effective at getting it all out as draining a live one. So there isn't even a crazy reason for doing it the dhabiha way.

I'd like to know why all the yoghurt in Brisbane's supermarkets has halal gelatine in it. I suppose it's simply that the Australian manufacturers want to be able to export it to Indonesia and other Muslim countries. But then again, I don't really care what their motives are. If they want to sell me yoghurt, they can use gelatine from animals that have been killed humanely.

28 April, 2007

Free 2 Mbps Broadband for India - Expensive Rubbish for Australia

Two megabits per second broadband access is something that people like me, living in Brisbane, Australia's third largest city, can only dream of. The only broadband service provider that covers my area, a company called Telstra, provides a 3G wireless network that they say can reach 1.5 Mbps but which I have only ever seen running at a third or sixth of that speed. 2 Mbps would be luxury.

Free broadband is an impossible dream! The money-grubbing bandits (sorry, I meant to say responsible managers) at Telstra charge me AU$80 per month for this pathetic service and that has a 1 gigabyte cap on traffic! The very best they can offer on their pathetic service is a 3 Gb cap (which costs AU$145/month). If you want more than that, you pay 15c/megabyte extra for what you use.

I have mentioned before how poor and limited the Telstra service is, and how jealous I am of my European friends who have far superior service at far lower cost. Now it looks as if I have to add my friends (well, friend, anyway) in India to the list of people I'm envious of. The Indian government has announced an amazingly far-sighted and progressive programme to roll out free, 2 Mbps broadband to every resident in the whole country by 2009. This follows a similar but less ambitious announcement by the European Union. And the United Nations' declaration that broadband should now be considered a utility – on a par with water and electricity.

When you listen to the pathetic excuses of the Australian federal government for why Australia has such terrible broadband coverage and such slow and expensive service (vast distances to cover, widely-spread rural populations, blah, blah, blah) it makes you want to give them a good shaking. Guys, India has the same issues. If India can do it, so can we.

The country is run by complacent, self-obsessed morons with no vision and no interest in anything except grabbing and holding power and wealth. Come the revolution, I want them sentenced to live in rural Australia with no income except one of their own 'work for the dole' packages. Until then, the rest of the world presses on into the 21st Century while Australia slips quietly backward into the 19th.

27 April, 2007

Save The Wesley Hydrotherapy Pool

Hi y'all. My regular reader is probably wondering why this has been such a bad month for blog postings. Well, my pathetic excuse is that I've been busy. I've recently become caught up in the campaign to save the Wesley Hospital Hydrotherapy Pool. You may have seen one or two recent postings on the subject. My wife is a user of the pool and one of the thousands of people who will suffer when the Uniting Church (which owns the Wesley Hospital) closes the pool in July. I know some of the people who are being abandoned by the church (whose advertising 'tag line' is “Helping with heart and soul” - if you can believe the hypocrisy in that – they're closing the pool to make more room for high-paying acute patient care that will increase the hospital's earnings by tens of millions each year) so I know what a terrible blow the closure of this facility will be to all of them. The Brisbane City Council is pretending that scrapping vital healthcare infrastructure has nothing to do with them but they're happy enough to give planning permission with no strings attached (like continuity of service until an alternative facility can be built, for example.) One campaigner who tried to speak to the Mayor was told that he was "too busy" to concern himself with such matters. Nice guy, huh?

Anyway, I've written the campaign a website and attended meetings and so on and it's all kept me rather busy. So, I will just point you to a couple of places to go for further information and then I'll shut up about it. Firstly, you should look at the blog of the campaign: http://savethewesleypool.blogspot.com which is full of harrowing stories by bereft pool users. Then you should go to the website: http://www.savethewesleypool.org.au which doesn't have much content yet but which contains a form for you to sign up and show your support.

Personally, I am disgusted that people who desperately need the physiotherapy they get at the pool in order to maintain their mobility in the teeth of degenerative diseases like arthritis and cerebral palsy, are simply being dumped by the Uniting Church. It is an appalling way to treat people who are working hard to avoid becoming (worse) invalids and to maintain some independence and dignity. The Uniting Church, the Brisbane City Council and the Wesley Hospital management have shown a callous indifference to the plight of thousands of needy people and their families.

'Nuff said.

24 April, 2007

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I'd like to ask you a few questions.

  1. Do you believe that using condoms reduces the risk of catching HIV?
  2. Do you think that calcium increases bone strength?
  3. Is it true that spending time doing homework correlates with academic achievement?
  4. Is there strong evidence linking smoking to an increased risk of lung cancer?
If you are like most rational people, you will have answered yes to all those questions. OK. So here's another one.

  • Do you believe that watching violence on TV and playing violent video games leads to increases in aggression, violence, and educational and behavioural problems?

Chances are that you'd be a bit equivocal about this one, probably thinking that there isn't good evidence either way.

Well, you'd be wrong. The evidence for this link is almost as strong as the evidence for smoking causing lung cancer. It is twice as strong as the evidence linking passive smoking to lung cancer, twice as strong as the evidence that condoms protect against HIV, three times as strong as the evidence that calcium increases bone strength, and more than three times stronger than the evidence that links doing homework with academic achievement. What's more, the evidence that violence on TV and in video games is bad for us has been accumulating for almost fifty years and is now considered 'overwhelming' by researchers in the field.

So why don't we have legislation banning violent content? Why don't we restrict it's sale, or use, to adults? Why don't we have prominent health warnings on every violent TV show or video game? Why aren't people successfully suing the purveyors of this dangerous and antisocial material?

Partly, it is because there has been a campaign of disinformation and water-muddying by the TV networks and games manufacturers, just like the ones perpetrated by the cigarette manufacturers to confuse legislators and the public about the dangers of smoking, and by the big oil companies to ward off legislation on global warming, and by the churches to try to stop evolution being taught. After all, games and television are multi-billion dollar businesses and that means a lot of vested interest by the people who own the companies.

Partly it is because we (that means me and it means you) are unwilling to admit that we could be influenced by watching violence. Somehow, we feel, we are immune to these effects – whatever the evidence shows. It can't make us more aggressive or violent. It can't change our behaviour. We're made of sterner stuff than that! Our minds are our own.

But evidence is evidence. It may be impossible to prove in any individual case but the effect has been demonstrated and measured over and over again. It is time we opened our minds to the fact that this stuff is hurting us and hurting our children.

(The source for this piece was the print edition of New Scientist for 21st April 2007 – both the editorial and the article by Helen Phillips called 'Mind Altering Media'.)

22 April, 2007

People Don't Shoot People Without Guns

If you ever need an antidote to left-wing political correctness, you might take a look at an article in today's news about an Australian study showing that the recent strict gun controls and the AU$500 million buy-back of weapons was actually having an impact, it seemed like excellent news. Being an inveterate sceptic, I started scouting about for more information and informed comment. And that's when I found a piece called Contradictory Research Findings About Guns From Australia, by Dr John Ray on A Western Heart.

You should take a look at it if you're interested in the subject as it summarises the study and a previous one quite nicely. Ray's criticism of the more recent study is that the graph they use as evidence for the conclusion could also be interpreted as evidence for no effect. He also points out that the large drop in gun-related suicides doesn't mean a lot if we don't know whether the overall rate of suicide has dropped too. The study also found that there have been no mass murders in the 10 years since the buy-back and the change in the law (there were 11 mass murders in the ten years prior to the change). While the politicians love this statistic and cite it as evidence that they achieved precisely what they set out to, Ray says, quite rightly, that with such a small sample size, it is very hard to make the case.

I scanned a bit further down the Western Heart page that Ray's piece was on and found an article by Dr Glen Otero and it really is a case study in how differently it is possible to perceive the same information. KG thinks Otero's 'well-documented findings' somehow invalidate the need to have gun control. I see them in an entirely different light. Here are the ones KG quotes with my interpretations next to them.
  • Approximately 80 percent of all adult American citizens own firearms, and a gun can be found in nearly half of American households. (Interpretation: Americans are paranoid. It is irresponsible of the government to pander to this level of suspicion and mistrust by letting people arm themselves.)
  • Between 1974 and 1995, the total number of privately owned firearms in America increased by 75 percent, to 236 million. During the same period, national homicide and robbery rates did NOT significantly increase. (Interpretation: The criminal element in America was already saturated with firearms by 1974. Since then mostly ordinary paranoid Americans have bought weapons – as well as replacement weapons for criminals, new weapons for new generations of criminals and additional weapons for criminals who already have one or more weapons.)
  • Less than 1 percent of all guns are involved in any type of crime, which means that 99 percent of all guns are NOT used to commit any crime. (Interpretation: So why have them? If people don't need them, get rid of them. Having so many superfluous guns sloshing around in America just makes it easier for the 1% who want to shoot people to get hold of them.)
  • In 1987, the National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that about 83 percent of Americans would become the victims of violent crime during the course of their lifetime. (Interpretation: Without knowing what percentage of violent crime involves firearms, this is a meaningless statistic. If it's all 83%, then those guys with the 1% of guns are really working their asses off! The reality is, this is the kind of statistic that is used to scare people so that they will go out and buy guns 'to defend themselves'. Since the second point in this list suggests that homicide and robbery rates are not increasing, all those extra guns the scared people are buying are not actually making any difference. They might as well not have them!)
I like to keep an open mind and I like to consider both sides of an argument. I'd also like to think that people with the title 'Dr.' would do the same. It's one thing for thickos like George W. Bush to have half-baked opinions on gun control but these guys ought to know better.

19 April, 2007

Killing Sprees 'R' Us

John Markell, the owner of Roanoke Firearms, half an hour's drive from Virginia Tech where, yesterday, thirty people were shot dead, appears quite happy with his decision to spend his life selling weapons to deranged people. If you like the feeling of icy chills going up your spine, you should read one of the interviews that he gave after the massacre.

Of course, we can all justify the stupid or wicked things we do. If I didn't pay the taxes that equip the troops that occupy Iraq, they'd throw me in gaol. There's no public transport for fifteen kilometres in any direction from where I live so I have to drive a car. Etc., etc.. But selling guns to people? There really isn't any excuse.

Markell seems to think that because, before the Virginia Tech slaughter, only four people have been murdered using weapons he's sold, it is somehow alright to arm potential murderers. Maybe the four dead people and their families would disagree with him. Now that the number has risen to thirty-four, he seems just as complacent. In fact, he thinks if the students that were shot had been allowed to carry guns on campus, they might have been able to protect themselves! (If it ever happens, knock loudly and announce yourself before you go barging into a classroom. You wouldn't want a bunch of startled kiddies diving into their backpacks for their Glock automatics.)

Of course, it is perfectly true that it is the person who shoots people, not the gun. But the people who say this don't seem to get it. A person without a gun, simply couldn't shoot someone, even if they wanted to. In a perfect world, people would not be crazed idiots with insane longings to die surrounded by their dead and wounded fellows. Sadly, it isn't a perfect world and there are an awful lot of warped and twisted people out there. So, is it really such a great idea to sell them guns, Mr. Markell?

No, it isn't. And to give you a tiny insight into why not, you should note that Mr. Markell himself sells his guns from behind a reinforced glass screen and his own daughter has a concealed weapons licence. I'm glad I don't live in Mr. Markell's world.

18 April, 2007

Chronically Ill Patients Don't Really Need Wesley Hospital Hydrotherapy Pool

A private hospital is a complicated beast - a lot like a hotel. People are checking in and out all the time. They need beds and food, car parking and clean laundry. The buildings need to be heated or cooled, cleaned and maintained. Stocks and equipment need to be bought and distributed, the grounds need to be maintained, services need to be advertised, payments need to be received and expenses accounted for, franchises need to be managed, and vehicles need to be bought and operated. It all takes a large staff and a lot of money. This in turn means a lot of managers up to their eyeballs in mundane trivia.

It is no wonder then that they sometimes lose sight of what they are there for and make mistakes. Take the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane. The management there came up with a strategy for redeveloping the hospital to meet future acute care demands but somehow completely forgot to include any chronic care in their plan. In particular, the new plan completely neglected the facft that they already ran the region's leading hydrotherapy pool, a first-class facility, with a first-class physiotherapy team, that has been serving chronically ill patients over a huge geographical area for almost two decades. The new plan would demolish this local centre of excellence and would not replace it, leaving hundreds and hundreds of patients without any form of treatment.


You'd think that, faced with a planning catasrophe like this, the hospital management - or perhaps the Uniting Church, which owns it - would stop what they are doing and make a better plan. You'd be wrong. The hospital management, although embarrassed by the furore that has arisen, is pressing ahead with this terrible decision as fast as they can push it through. I've been trying to understand why this would be.

One obvious reqason is that the management cannot bear to admit they have made a very stupid mistake. Rather than say that their ineptitude is responsible for casting hundreds of extremely needy people to the wolves, they want to argue that they were right really and that a change of strategy (from caring for people to dumping them like garbage, it seems) is what the region needs. A less obvious reason but one which came out at a recent public information meeting (from which the management had excluded the press, by the way) is that the hospital general manager seems to believe that most of the patients who use the pool don't really need it. They just go there because they like to exercise in warm water, he told us. Of the several thousand people who use the pool each year, he believes that 'about a hundred' are really in need of it. The rest, I suppose, must be lying malingerers who have persuaded their gullible doctors and specialists into believing that their arthritis, or cerebral palsy, or knee operation, or loss of function following brain surgery, is far mor serious than it really is.

The general manager is not a medical man, nor has he even spent any time at the pool observing the treatments going on there. Yet he has this bizarre prejudice and no doubt it is behind his belief that it is alright to shut down this wonderful facility that has helped so many people.

17 April, 2007

Uniting Church Throws Chronically Ill People Out On Their Ear

The Uniting Church in Australia runs a hospital in Brisbane, Queensland: the Wesley Hospital. In this hospital, is a hydrotherapy pool. The pool treats about five hundred patients a week, thousands of patients each year. And the Uniting Church is about to close this pool, throwing all those patients out. They made the announcement a couple of weeks ago that the pool will close sometime between July and September this year. Unfortunately, there are almost no other hydrotherapy pools in Brisbane, none in the local area, and those that there are, are already fully utilised.

Some of the people who use the Wesley Hospital pool are patients of the hospital who need it as part of their post-operative, acute care, or who have just suffered a stroke or hip or knee operation. The great majority (85% to 90%) are chronic sufferers with problems like cerebral palsy, arthritis, or scoliosis. The main reason they need physiotherapy in a pool, rather than on dry land, is because their particular problems mean that they cannot do the exercises that will improve their mobility without the support that buoyancy provides – it is simply too painful or damaging to exercise outside the pool.

Hospital doctors and physiotherapists, other referring consultants and local GPs, all agree that the hydrotherapy pool provides a vital service which is essential not only to short term recovery but also to the long-term mobility, pain management and quality of life of thousands of people. So why is the Uniting Church throwing all these desperately needy patients out? Well, the strategy of the hospital seems to have changed. They want to concentrate more on acute patients than on chronic ones. So they are going to build a new building to put lots more acute beds in and for this, they need the site that the hydrotherapy pool now occupies.

Seems odd that a church would show so little compassion. Since there are, effectively, no alternative facilities for these patients, they all face a future in which their mobility will quickly decline and their level of chronic pain will rapidly increase. Some face a return to the wheelchairs they have struggled to get out of. Some may even face amputations if they don't keep their limbs mobile. I was at a public meeting this evening where a packed auditorium was 'informed' by the church of its plans to dump them. It was an incredibly moving event as people stood up and told their stories – a man who feared for his paraplegic son, a woman who knew she could not go on working without the mobility the pool gave her, a woman who was desperately frightened that she might lose her arm, a man with cerebral palsy who was scared that all the work he had put into being able to sit up in his wheelchair would be undone without the pool.

Through it all, the hospital managers and other bureaucrats from the church sat stony-faced and unmoved, repeating over and over their jargon-filled 'explanations' for why they planned to ruin all these lives, which amounted to this: they had to provide more private beds for acute care to compete in the modern private health market, they hadn't been aware of any real need for a hydrotherapy pool, and it was now too late to change their plans.

Nice to know the Uniting Church cares so much about people, isn't it?

16 April, 2007

More Corruption at the World Bank

So Paul Wolfowitz, former US deputy defence secretary and now president of the World Bank, seems to have been caught with his fingers in the till. He appears to have personally arranged a US$200,000 salary deal for his girlfriend, a bank employee. She seems to have accepted it too, which would make her just as bad as he is. No doubt the pair is well suited to one another. Or is this just what we're supposed to believe?

Of course, this kind of seedy corruption is so commonplace among senior managers that it barely seems odd that one of them should be found out now and then. And, equally commonplace, is the notion that roles like president of the World Bank would go to an ex-politician. After all, aren't little perks like this one of the main reasons why people go into politics? If the big corporations weren't greasing the palms of senior politicians, how would they ever get preferential treatment? If top jobs in multinational organisations weren't being handed out to former defence secretaries and the like, what would be their incentive to serve their countries?

The scandal of it all is that Wolfowitz got caught and somehow it wasn't all hushed up. Maybe he'd made too many enemies. Maybe someone more sly and devious is after his job – or after his girlfriend, or just after him. Who knows. The fact is that the odd scandal of this nature is merely a reminder that this kind of sleazy corruption is rife in the corporate world and the world of politics. (Hello? Did someone mention Haliburton? Jeez. Aren't these neo-cons supposed to be upright, religious types?) It goes hand-in-hand with the idea that you need capitalism to give people an incentive to make a success of an economy. After all, that's why communism failed in the USSR, isn't it?

Or was that something to do with the demoralising, divisive, degrading, grinding-down of a whole society by rampant greed and corruption?

15 April, 2007

Cat Seeks Attention, Gets Affinity

I looked at my cat this morning – that's him on the left – and felt a sudden affinity with him. Now, I've got to say, this doesn't happen very often: especially not of late. He looks so sweet that you probably can't imagine how anyone could feel anything but kindness towards him. But looks can deceive. Under all that soft fur and behind those ingratiating ways, all cats are self-obsessed little killing machines. It's true that most of them tend to save that side of their nature for the quiet moments when they are alone with something much smaller than themselves. To us, they show another face: an innocent, round-eyed, beseeching face, that pretty much gets them whatever they want.

So there I was, lying in bed, slowly coming round to full consciousness and reading a novel. Outside, the butcher birds were tooting and the ravens were bellowing. The sun was already high and bright (we're not too far from the Tropic of Capricorn and the sun goes up and down much more and much more quickly here than it does in places closer to the poles.) Yuli (we named him after a character in a science fiction novel) trotted into the bedroom and hopped up onto my side of the bed. Then he made his way up towards my chest – a spot he finds convenient for being stroked and petted.

So I gave him a few cursory passes of the hand. This usually suffices and he either moves on to Wifie – who is much more enthusiastic about pleasuring the little chap – or settles down for one of the many naps he needs to squeeze into the day. Today, however, he walked up onto my chest, effectively stopping me reading and ensuring that he had my fullest attention.

With his head just inches from mine, the moment of affinity suddenly struck.

Here was a fellow traveller, another life-form, stuck here on planet Earth for his allotted span, doing whatever it took to get him through the days, surviving, the way the rest of us survive, the only way he knew how, getting pleasure where he could find it, staying out of harm's way when he could, and seeking out the comfort that creatures like us find in the company of others.

14 April, 2007

Free Software - It Really Is Possible

If you don't like paying for software, you can get practically everything you need for free without compromising quality or performance. On the contrary, the free stuff is often better than its commercial equivalents. This is what I have gradually come to understand lately and is a message I would like to share with the world – for free.

In the past few weeks, I have been making a concerted effort to replace all my bought software with free software. My goal is to have everything except the operating system sourced from companies other than Microsoft and free - and if Vista really is as bad as they say it is, I won't be buying that, either. Here is my progress so far:

Office Software: I have downloaded and begun to use OpenOffice.org 2.2. This completely replaces Microsoft's Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access with, respectively, Swrite, Scalc, Simpress and Sbase. These programs are almost identical to their Microsoft equivalents in every way – similar user interface, similar functionality – but they seem to be more reliable and to run much faster. They also produce files which are about a fifth of the size of their Microsoft counterparts. They will open and save in Microsoft file formats if you want them to (with no penalties that I can see yet – formatting, macros, formulae all go both ways) or in the OpenDocument formats which are becoming a global standard. That software this good can be free is a miracle (or a testimony to how much Sun Systems hates Microsoft.)

Email: I've always been happy enough with Microsoft Outlook but I find I can replace it quite easily with free equivalents. However, what I chose to do instead was use a Web email service rather than get a new email client for my PC. The thing is, I don't like wasting my bandwidth on downloading junk mail (it amounted to half a megabyte of junk the other day!). With Web mail, you only download the emails you actually want to see. And when it comes to Web email, little else has the functionality of Gmail from Google. I can even use Gmail to consolidate all my other email accounts and have my own email address in the From and Reply-to fields – just as if it was a desktop client.

Other Internet Stuff: Browsers are all free anyway but the change from Internet Explorer to Firefox is one I am more than happy to make. As for file transfers, I used to use Coffee Cup's FTP software, which has a great user interface, but the change to the free FileZilla has been completely painless.

Image Manipulation: I've been using Paint Shop Pro for some years now – not as functional as Photoshop by a long way but so much easier to use, quite adequate for what I need and very cheap by comparison (up to AU$1,500 for Photoshop, depending on the version, vs less than AU$200 for Paint Shop Pro). However, I recently downloaded GIMP which seems to be every bit as powerful as Photoshop (although it has an even worse user interface!) and it is completely free.

Music: The one thing I do on a computer that I can't find decent free software for is writing music. There are plenty of free programs for stringing together sampled sounds but free software that will let you just write notes onto staves in the good old-fashioned way is very rare. I've tried a couple of things but they are not really adequate. However, I have found the next best thing to a full-function free program; Harmony Assistant from Myriad Software. It is a wonderful program, almost as good as the brand-leader Sibelius but it costs less than AU$90. As for sound editing and file conversions, I find that Audacity is a great piece of free software.

I'll keep you posted on new developments.

12 April, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Lives

One of the wittiest and wisest men of the Twentieth Century – of any century – has died. Kurt Vonnegut was 84 and died of head injuries following a fall a few weeks ago. I don't know anyone who doesn't admire Vonnegut and love his books. We all have our favourites (and they usually include Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five) and there are going to be thousands of accolades in the next few days, so let me get a plug in now for my two: The Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions. If you're about to re-read the man's work, try to find time for these two.

I had a cat – about thirty years ago! - which I called Montana Wildhack as my own little tribute to this incredible man's genius. As another, I'd like to list a couple of his better-known quotes, just because so much of what he said deserves saying over and over again.

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or
explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we
are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber. (Slaughterhouse-Five)

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is
around to be loved. (Sirens of Titan)

Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state
of denial, about to face cold turkey. (Cold Turkey)

Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.(A Man Without A Country)

Without Vonnegut, who is there to chide us and praise us for our weakness and grandeur? Which new humanist will step into those giant shoes – the ones with curly toes and bells on? Who else could be so angry and scared and funny and clever all at the same time?

Telling The Human Story

Do you ever wonder about how we tell the human story? I was reading Peter Ackroyd's The Fall of Troy over Easter – a novel about the discovery of the ruins of Troy – and it took me back, inevitably, to the story told by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey of the great heroes and their gods. And this, in turn, reminded me of the many Celtic folk tales I've read and which were once part of my own oral tradition of storytelling.

In my mind, a river of stories runs down the ages from there: the Aeneid, the legends of Arthur, Beowulf, Héloise and Abélard, the Canterbury Tales, and on through the Renaissance to modern times, the river growing broader and faster with each passing generation. The source of the river was probably a lakeside camp-fire in Olduvai Gorge with a small cluster of half-human families settling down for the night, confabulating tales of spirits and magic. And here we are, in an age when every man, woman and child with Internet access is able to tell their story to the whole wide world.

Not so long ago, our stories were learned by heart during long apprenticeships and told to audiences hungry for information and revelation. More recently, when writing was new, books were precious things, carefully crafted and lovingly read and re-read. Now books are churned out by the millions, can expect a few weeks on the bookshop shelves if their author is very lucky, and then become old and forgotten as the next month's batch is produced. Alongside them, are the newspapers and magazines and, of course, the Web. Much of what is written today is good for a few hours and then is disdained. Our story is being told now at a frantic pace, almost in real time. While it grows increasingly detailed, domestic and trivial, it grows more grandiose, global and profound.

Domestic and trivial: like the TV networks, where soaps and 'reality TV' shows begin to predominate as they try to find cheaper and more engrossing alternatives to drama and documentary, or the publishers that drop tired old literature in favour of romantic novels, action novels and 'sword and sorcery' fantasies, the Web feeds us two-paragraph news items and blogs – the daily minutiae of tens of millions of people's lives.

Grandiose and global: like a TV serial in its fourth season, the plots grow more exaggerated and earth-shattering as the audience grows more bored and demands more titillation. The old stories of heroes and their great deeds are too tame for us. What is the fall of Troy when on a whim the whole of Iraq can be crushed by invading armies? What is the slaying of Grendel when a billion people wait to die in the next flu pandemic? What is it to us that Atlantis sank beneath the waves when half the major cities in the world may disappear the same way over the next hundred years?

05 April, 2007

David Bowie

I don’t know about you but tunes are always running in my head. It’s something like hearing voices, I suppose – but in a good way. Today the tune was ‘Teenage Wildlife’ by David Bowie, one of those pieces the reviewers tend to call ‘anthems’ (for the under-fifties that’s one of those numbers like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana). Since I’m my own man these days, and can pretty much suit myself as to what I do, I went to my computer and played the track – and played it loud! And, as ever with Bowie, it was even better than I remembered. So I set my media player to play nothing but Bowie and feasted on his work.

There are several musicians (by which I really mean composers) I admire unreservedly. Mozart, Beethoven, JS Bach, Handel and Haydn for instance. Then there is a second tier who almost make it into this league – Wagner, Brahms, Verdi, Mendelssohn – and many others, less astonishing but nevertheless breathtakingly brilliant (the Mahlers and Puccinis are in there with the JC Bachs and the Berlioz’s). Somewhere in the late 1800s though, the list peters out. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, there were a few – Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky – but I can’t think of a single ‘serious’ musician I admire who is writing today. Where did they all go?

I think that they turned to pop music. Or, to put it another way, the musicians who really felt genius surging through them, began to express themselves in fresh and exciting new ways – writing popular music – the way musicians like Mozart once did. And judging by the criteria of impact on the genre, groundbreaking innovation that pushed the field forwards, the sheer number of imitators, and the subtlety and emotional intensity of the music itself, there are very, very few people who stand out like David Bowie does (you might argue that Bob Dylan is a contender and I might even grant you The Beatles, if we allow ‘collective’ composers).

I know, I know. It’s hard to think of a guy in a silver catsuit, who named his son Zowie and used to do that invisible wall mime thing on stage, as the modern equivalent of Beethoven or Mozart but I really believe he is. In another age, he could certainly have been Wagner and, let’s face it, since he ‘got God’, I can see him churning out cantatas as JS Bach too. If you don’t believe me, get hold of a copy of Scary Monsters – in my opinion the best album Bowie ever made – stick it on your iPod and go for a long drive with it blasting in your ears. You may need to listen to the album a few times through before you start fully to appreciate its quality but that is no hardship at all.

I’ve been a ‘fan’ of Bowies since I first heard his really early work (Rubber Band, Uncle Arthur, etc. – lightweight but fun) and there are major gems throughout his career. Hunk Dory was his own ‘Sgt. Peppers’ but there are many truly great albums you should listen to (Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Young Americans, Lodger, Diamond Dogs, Black Tie White Noise – tell you what, just listen to them all!) But it was Scary Monsters that convinced me that Bowie was a truly great artist, that living in England in the 1980s was something akin to living in Vienna in the 1780s, that people 200 years from today would wonder what it was like to be alive now, the way we wonder what it must have been like to share the world with Mozart.

Actually, guys, it was pretty great!

03 April, 2007

Credit Cards, Human Hearts And A Technical Fix For Global Warming

It’s a funny old world, as my old friend Steve used to say. Steve himself was an illustration of the fact. He was an ugly bloke with a personality that drove most people to want to thump him sooner or later, yet he played the guitar with more skill and innate musical ability than anyone I have ever known. Oh yes, and he was a policeman.

I’m often struck when reading the news, that Steve’s far-too-often-repeated homily, is pretty much on the money. It actually is a funny old world. And what makes it so funny? Why people, of course.

Take today, for instance. I find an article on the British Psychological Society’s website describing some research that suggests people who let debt accumulate on their credit cards (thus incurring interest charges) are precisely those people who pick credit cards with low annual fees and high interest rates – which is exactly the wrong strategy. These people have what the researchers call ‘unrealistic optimism’ about paying off their monthly balance, or, as it is described in another study, ‘wishful thinking’, so the low fees seem like a good deal to them. In a caring society, we would make people take personality tests when applying for credit so that the bank could be forced to issue appropriate cards to them.

Then, turning away from tales of sad losers, I read that Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub and a team at the Harefield Hospital in the UK have grown a heart valve from stem cells. They predict they could be using artificially grown heart components like this in patients within three years and possibly transplanting whole hearts in ten. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that in the same world there are people who can’t judge which credit card is best for them while others are out there growing new body parts?

My guess is that the same people who get the credit card thing wrong are also unrealistically optimistic about whether they will get heart disease from eating Big Macs. They may even indulge in wishful thinking about their chances of suffering smoking-related heart disease. It’s just as well then, that there are people around like Magdi Yacoub and his team who have spent the last ten years of their lives working on how to grow spare parts for wishful thinkers – not to mention the thousands of other scientists and clinicians all over the world who have contributed to this incredible achievement.

Of course, the people who are presently stuffing their faces with hot dogs and smoking four packs a day in the unrealistically optimistic hope that it’ll all be alright in the end, might actually turn out to be the smart ones – when they are rolled into the operating theatre, ten years from now, and their surgeon slots in a nice, freshly-grown heart for them. I bet those guys on Magdi’s team are going to feel pretty stupid thinking about the two decades they spent peering into microscopes late into the night when they could have been at home with their feet up drinking Coke and smoking cigars.

Oh, and the global warming thing? I guess we're all just wishful thinkers.

02 April, 2007

Nowt So Queer As Folk

In my never-ending struggle to provide a curious, interesting and strangely compelling place to visit for jaded intellectuals the world over, I am always looking for new ways to spice up this blog. One way would be to display pictures of scantily-clad men, women and animals (after all, most of my readers are human - and the rest cannot be ignored). But that is just too tacky. Another way would be to grow ever more strident until my postings consist of nothing more than streams of controversial ranting punctuated by obscenities and multiple exclamation marks. This is tempting as it is quite like my normal way of communicating. However, once I reach that point, where do I go from there? There is a limit to how big you can make your fonts (as the tabloid newspapers discovered decades ago).

I already provide cleverly-tailored advertising, provided by my good friends at Google - who have yet to pay me a single dollar for this opprotunity by the way. Not that I'm complaining. I know that, one day, someone will spot an ad that appeals and be driven to click on it. I can't wait for the day that 2c comes rolling in! Until then, you can read me railing about the wonders of science while being enticed by offers to compare your health insurance, or damning the evils of corporate granny-bashers to the accompaniment of invitations to consolidate your credit card debt. Surely this is a major incentive for you to keep coming back?

Then there is my Amazon-franchise Waving Not Drowning Media Store. (Yes, the one they're all taking about.) The only place on Earth where you can buy all the books and films that have had a good review on this blog. (I don't sell the ones that get a bad review. Trust me on this, you wouldn't want to own them. And if you did, just think of how all your intellectual snob friends would snigger when they spotted a WND reject on your book-shelf. Who needs that kind of grief?)

Even so, I have added a new and exciting feature. Yes, no-one asked for it and no-one wanted it but you got it all the same: welcome to 'Nowt So Queer As Folk', your daily round-up of all that is strange and weird in the world's news today! (It's on the right, by the way, just below the adverts.) And, yes, 'nowt' is a real word. It comes from a language called 'Yorkshire' which is still spoken in the wilder parts of Northern England. (It should also be pointed out that in 'Yorkshire' the word 'queer' means odd or peculiar and the word 'folk' is not a popular music genre - that's just for those who thought I was commenting on the sexual preferences of your favourite musicians.)

So, there it is. Enjoy. The news items are selected on the basis of the keywords listed at the top of the section. Anybody with an interesting selection of keywords to suggest may get the honour of having them used for a week following them being sent to me.

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