Thursday, 30 September 2010

Of Mice And Monkeys

After reading this news item yesterday, I find myself checking my own sliced bread for murine stowaways. It's not at all likely that I'll find any, but something in my psyche makes me look anyway. It's the herd alarm signal - it's why you feel compelled to check the house for spiders after watching Arachnophobia. Anyway, is it only me who feels a little bit sorry for the poor mouse? Going about his business, finding a few crumbs to keep body and soul together, finding a nice warm, dry room full of delicious bread and then WHOMP! Game over. He's medium sliced. I believe they never did find his tail - which must worry the guy who'd already eaten some of the loaf.

Today, there's an even better animal story. It seems that the beleaguered organisers of the Delhi Commonwealth Games are employing langurs as monkey security guards to patrol various venues. Apparently there's been a serious monkey problem in Delhi for years, which can't be effectively dealt with as a significant proportion of the population consider them sacred. The answer - bring in bigger monkeys to scare off the smaller ones. But what if the small monkeys get wise to this and hire themselves some chimps as bodyguards? Then they'll have to send in the gorillas to protect the langurs. Worrying times for those concerned about a simian arms race.

Ok, I'm going to go and take my medication now. After checking the house for monkeys, of course.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

She Stopped Blinding Me With Science Due To Funding Cuts

Once again, the politicians are trying to kill us with their myopic worldview. I know we need to make funding cuts, but leave science alone!

The UK currently contributes about 10% of the world's scientific output, with only about 1% of the world's population. We're good at it. We have a long history of innovation and engineering excellence. But this is under serious threat from swingeing cuts.

Science is vital because we have evolved culturally beyond our ability to live without it. Turn off electric power, and our society will fail, as banking, medical services and communication all become impossible. Half of us can’t even see straight without wearing a device to correct our vision. We can’t find our own food, or clothe ourselves, or defend ourselves. We have forgotten how. Our increasing sophistication makes us more and more dependent on a precarious platform of technology, supported by a relatively tiny number of knowledgeable people.

Please don’t bring our civilisation even closer to collapse by cutting bits off our only functioning crutch!

Friday, 17 September 2010

One Less Pope

I am usually a fan of the BBC's news site, but I think they might have got this a bit wrong:
It seems to be implying that the front five members of the Pontiff's personal motorcycle display team are in some way linked to "Pope terror". Surely not.

I am a little disappointed with the Pope's UK holiday so far. Yes, one of his cronies said Britain was a Third World country, and yes, he's been spouting the usual laughable nonsense about how the Nazis were atheists, therefore secularism is terribly dangerous (a non-sequitur based on a generally untrue premise), but he hasn't done anything really loony or interesting yet.

Today he was busy Pontiff-icating in front of a load of kids bussed in from all over the country. Can you imagine how thrilled they all were? I for one would have liked him to have taken the opportunity to do a little juggling, or maybe sing a chorus of Wonderwall in that gentle German lisp that unaccountably puts me in mind of Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. Or show us all his sense of humour with a quick balloon dog made out of condoms.

But no. What are we all paying for? Somehow I can't help feeling we'd all be better off with just one less Pope on our backs.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Lack of community spirit

I am one of that select band of individuals whose precious lunch hour today was briefly interrupted by a pirate. Rather a weedy-looking, myopic pirate if I'm honest, but he did have the full gear, including a plastic cutlass. However, rather than slit my gizzard he chose merely to deliver a leaflet inviting me to give up my scarce free time in order to clean up some crummy beach I've never been to.

I confess, my timbers were far from shivered. I don't like these "hey, we're a caring company, so why not come out of hours and do some back-breaking community work with people you've never met at a place you don't care about" events. And call me a surly old son of a sea dog, but the prospect of doing it dressed as a pirate does not have the desired effect of making the whole tedious enterprise seem like fun.

After all, community service is for young offenders - and Boy George.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Even bad books...

"Even bad books are still books, and therefore sacred", as we are reminded by the Nobel-prizewinning author Günter Grass. In a time when the world is buzzing over the plans of Pastor Terry Jones of the "Dove World Outreach Center" in Florida to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11, it's worth stepping back for a minute and thinking about what is actually going on.

Terry Jones and his
righteous facial hair
Now, ignoring for a moment that the guy has the same name as one of the Monty Python team, and also that he sports a truly epic gunslinger moustache, let us consider his motives. In his mind, and indeed, the minds of many Christians, the Koran is evil, simply because it's a holy book that their god didn't write. It is therefore a counterfeit of the devil (still in his mind, remember - these aren't my views :), as can be seen by the many acts of terrorism committed by people who claim to be doing what the god of the Koran wants them to. I imagine he's also fed up with the antics of Bible and flag-burning zealots who seem to be able to get away with it every day. So he thinks, well, let's make a statement for Jesus.

I reckon he was unprepared for the global backlash. Everybody from the Afghan government to the Vatican has condemned the idea. Even his neighbours in Gainesville hate it. Indeed, local Christians, Jews and Muslims are organising inclusive events with each other. Some churches even plan to read from the Koran this weekend. So well done, Pastor Jones! Your reactionary stance has been the catalyst for the promotion of peace and mutual understanding.

But something about this has bothered me. You'll have discerned from my use of Günter Grass' quote that I am not in favour of destroying books. They are (and I realise this might sound a bit pseudy) the means by which we document our humanity, good, bad or indifferent. So, yes, please don't burn the Koran. But...why don't governments and religious leaders around the world condemn the burning of Bibles by radicals of other faiths with the same urgency? Are we not just appeasing those who shout loudest?

The answer, I now think, lies in the capacity of the offendee to be offended. Where I work there is a anti-harrassment policy which makes it clear that it's all about the perception of the individual. You may be able to make a jokey remark which most people would laugh at and consider inoffensive, but if one person finds it offensive, and you know that, then you are harrassing them. This may seem over the top in some circumstances, but the principle is a good one.

The issue with the Koran is that it is very hard for those outside Islam to understand just how offensive it is to a Muslim to disrespect his holy book. Christians may get annoyed when the Bible is burned, or those like me might be very cross to see people destroying, say, The Origin of Species, but very rarely will it seem a personal blow striking at the very core of one's beliefs. You may say, well, those Muslims, they shouldn't get so upset about it, but in human society that is not really a valid response. People who deliberately offend others are bullying them, and whatever you may feel about the religious views involved, that is what the Koran-burning is.

All of that said, I am grateful to Pastor Jones for reminding me again of the horror of 9/11. I just think we need to find a less unhelpful way to remember those who died.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Disney: the magic continues behind the scenes

Recently, my daughter's weekend theatre school had the opportunity to perform at Eurodisney, or rather Disneyland® Resort Paris as we must now call it. This meant that we had to go into the heavily-guarded backstage areas, where princesses and 5-foot chipmunks mingle freely with chain-smoking French technicians. We were warned several times that absolutely no photos were to be taken, but they stopped short of making us swear to secrecy on the lives of our children, so I can report to you now, dear reader, that the magic really does continue behind the scenes. Any ordinary visitor to the park may wander through Discoveryland, Frontierland or Adventureland, but as our coach was driven into the mysterious backstage compound, a sign informed us that we were entering "Castmemberland". This, naturally, delighted me, though not quite as much as the bus stop labelled "Pirates". Imagine that! A bus stop for the exclusive use of pirates! I wish I could have taken a picture. A couple of young, French, female buccaneers did wander past on their way from the Caribbean, just to heighten the surrealism to dizzying levels.

We were led past various corrugated iron buildings and discarded rollercoaster cars to an unassuming wooden door in a scabby shed. This turned out to be a magic portal to Fantasyland! As we went through, the sounds of the park suddenly rose around us, and everything seemed to go from black-and-white to colour. This transformative experience was actually one of the highlights of the trip for me. That and watching my 7-year-old daughter performing Michael Jackson's Thriller dressed as a zombie bridesmaid.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Then we should know the mind of Hawking

I wonder how many of the theists who are currently lining up to lob insults and derisory comments at Stephen Hawking actually have any idea what his soundbite quote* from The Grand Design means, or the years of study and research that preceded the statement, or have even read the book in which it is contained (which as I write has yet to be released). Do any of them, ANY of them, have even a rudimentary grasp of M-theory? Did any of them correctly predict that black holes emit thermal radiation?

It reminds me of Pierre-Simon Laplace's somewhat terse response to Napoleon, when the emperor complained that Laplace hadn't referred to the Creator in his seminal work, Celestial Mechanics: "I have had no need of that hypothesis."

Hawking's view is that philosophy is dead, and that science now researches the ultimate questions of Life, the Universe and Everything. And as he says himself, "Unlike the answer given in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ours won’t be simply '42'."

*"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going." - Stephen W. Hawking

ELO cellist killed by bale of hay

Mike Edwards - no longer facing the music
Of all the words I wasn't expecting to see in the same sentence this week, these are somewhere near the top of the list. This is one of those dreadful things that would be funny if it weren't true. I first heard of it when my dear wife told me "somebody from ELO is dead". I confess I was relieved to discover it wasn't Jeff Lynne, but this just made me feel guilty for the poor guy who actually died.

I now realise I have a mental order for who I'd be most upset about dying from ELO. It goes as follows:

1. Jeff Lynne
2. Bev Bevan
=3. Richard Tandy and Kelly Groucutt
4. Mik Kaminski
5. Anybody else.

(NB - this doesn't include Roy Wood, who I mentally classify as an entity in his own right. If he WERE in the list he would be =1 with Mr Lynne.)

Of course, poor Mike Edwards (damn, I just had to look up his name again) is at the bottom. But I am still a little bit sad, especially on learning that he would sometimes play his cello with a grapefruit "in order to make the band more entertaining". I wish I'd seen that.