Monday, 30 July 2012

War minus the shooting?

I caught that Tim Harford on the radio this morning, making an obvious, but interesting, point about national Olympic medal tallies. In Beijing, China amassed an impressive haul of medals, a lot of them gold. But with a population of 1.3 billion people and enough money in the economy to support large numbers of elite athletes, those numbers shouldn't be that astonishing. Wouldn't a fairer measure of national athletic prowess need to take some account of the size of population it takes to produce a world beater?

To get a feel for this, here are the top ten national gold medal tallies from the 2008 summer games:
Nation Number of gold medals
China 51
USA 36
Russia 23
GB 19
Germany 16
Australia 14
S. Korea 13
Japan 9
Italy 8
France 7
And here are the same nations, with the population size,* divided by the number of gold medals awarded:
Nation Millions of people per gold medal
Australia 1.5
GB 3.3
S. Korea 3.8
Germany 5.1
Russia 6.1
Italy 7.5
USA 8.5
France 9.3
Japan 14.2
China 25.9
This metric supports the Aussies' rep as the world's most sports-mad nation, as well as team GB's pride, whilst making China look not quite that impressive. Include some of the smaller nations that won gold and the list of the world's most efficient gold medal-producing nations looks even more different and knocks China well out of the top ten.

I haven't looked at all the 200-odd competing nations, but a quick glance confirms that Ukraine, with a population of around 45.5 million bagged seven gold medals, or one per 6.5 million people, so did better than Italy. Canada, at one gold per 11.6 million citizens didn't do quite so well, but still out-performed Japan and China. Romania got 4 golds (about one for every 4.8 million people, so better than Russia). When you get down to really tiny populations and one or two gold medals, you could argue that it all gets a bit skewed by random variations in performance (Switzerland's 2 golds would be one per 4 million people, or better than Germany, whilst tiny Estonia's solitary gold went to a nation of just 1.3 million, technically beating Australia.

But most impressive of all, by this measure, is Jamaica, an island of 2.7 million people whose athletes came home with six golds (three courtesy of Usain St. Leo Bolt), or one gold medal per 451,000 people.

I'm not claiming that this is the best or fairest way of looking at things. There are, obviously, lots of other factors in play. 118 countries failed to win a medal of any sort in Beijing, comfortably outnumbering the 86 medal-winning nations. Some of those 118 were tiny, some were big, but just poor. Bangladesh, a country of nearly 150 million people has been competing since 1984, but (at the time of writing) has never won an Olympic medal of any sort. With a per capita GDP of $1,693 there's not much to spare for track and field training and most talented Bangladeshi youths could no more fly to the moon than access expensive kit like  Laser sailing dinghies, carbon fibre bows and arrows or Olympic standard racing bikes.

Then there are things like the detailed demographics and the complex interplay with wealth. All things being equal, a country where the median age is just over 19, like Nigeria has a proportionally bigger pool of potential up-and-coming Olympic talent than the UK (median age about 37). But as we've seen  things aren't equal and the UK has the infrastructure to support more of its elite athletes than Nigeria.

Although fair adjustments are elusive, I would say that unadjusted raw medal tallies don't even come close to giving meaningful international comparisons. I don't think that many people could fail to grasp this point, so I wonder whether the general reluctance to give some context to the figures is a sort of category mistake. Orwell famously said that:
Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.
I'm not so sure. It's only when international sporting events are seen as something akin to war that unadjusted medal tallies make any kind of sense. War is pretty much a zero sum game, with only the most elastic rules.

Imagine that the tiny nation of West Xylophone is invaded, defeated and occupied by its populous and powerful neighbour, Symphonia. The plucky West Xylophonese fight hard and well, holding off the Symphonian hordes with a combination of bravery and ingenuity, causing disproportionate damage to the invaders until they are eventually overcome by vastly superior numbers and firepower. As this is war, not sport, there can be only one winner, Symphonia. The fact that the West Xylophonese performed better in proportion to their numbers is irrelevant. Might makes, if not right, at least the reality on the ground. Symphonia won the war and West Xylophone lost and any observer claiming that West Xylophone "technically" won the war would be talking rubbish.

If the Symphonian Olympic squad comes up against Team West Xylophone, though, the situation is rather different. Sure, people sometimes cheat, or fail to live up to the highest standards of honourable competition, but sport is far more tightly regulated and rule-bound than war. There are rules and norms in war, but a field of activity in which killing people - albeit in approved ways - is seen as inevitable and normal is a hell of a lot more unregulated than one where taking the wrong hay fever meds, or tripping, shoving, or verbally abusing an opponent will incur punishment, whilst detectably breaching the rules of your sport will result in you losing the competition. In contrast, an admired military commander is expected to take unfair advantages, break the rules, deceive the enemy and do anything short of committing atrocities in order to win the battle.

The results of victory and defeat in war and sport are immensely different. Instead of invading and defeating West Xylophone in war, say Symphonia simply bags more Olympic gold in absolute terms, whilst West Xylophone, rather than fighting well but being militarily overwhelmed gains fewer medals in absolute terms, (but more in proportion to the nation's size). In this case you can make a perfectly good case for both nations having done well. The effect of sporting "defeat" (i.e. getting a lower absolute number of medals than a larger competing country) is nothing like the catastrophe of military defeat. Nobody dies, or becomes a refugee, nobody's home gets occupied by a hostile power,** the economy of the nation with the fewest medals isn't trashed. The athletes simply take their five minutes on the podium, then everybody goes home again and starts working towards the next set of quadrennial games, without anybody's homeland having been devastated.

Just because some people treat sport as if it's war minus the shooting doesn't mean that the two activities are really at all similar. Looking at unadjusted national medal totals, with their implied story of absolute victory and defeat, makes these two unrelated things look deceptively alike.

* population figures for the largest nations from here. Others from Wikipedia figures for roughly the right time frame (this is just back of the envelope stuff).

**London's residents and businesses might feel that their city is under occupation, what with the Zil lanes, the rooftop missiles and the Brand Exclusion Zone, but that's not quite the same thing.



As if to prove my point, four pairs of women's doubles badminton players have been disqualified from the current Olympics for deliberately trying to throw matches in order to secure a more favourable draw in the next round. Orwell might have thought that serious sport was distinguished by a 'disregard of all rules' but, in reality, sport penalises those who get caught flagrantly breaching the rules. In warfare, ruthlessly taking an unfair advantage generally results in victory. When Hannibal surprised the Romans by unexpectedly turning up with more elephants than any defending army could have reasonably expected, there was no umpire around to jump up and revoke his victory at Cannae on the grounds of unsporting behaviour.

Friday, 20 July 2012

With a geranium behind each ear...

 ... and his face painted with gay cabalistic symbols, six foot eight seventeen stone police sergeant Geoff Bull looked jolly convincing as he sweated and grunted through a vigorous twist routine at the Frug À Go-Go bierkeller. His hot serge trousers flapped wildly over his enormous plastic sandals as he jumped and jumped and gyrated towards a long-haired man.
'Uh, excuse me, man, I have reason to believe you can turn me on.'

Friday night is music night, so here are the Bonzos with one of Vivian Stanshall's finest exercises in inspired gibberish:

Ant Man rises

As Batman: The Dark Knight Rises busts blocks  in multiplexes everywhere this summer, the Offsping's reception year class have taken "superheroes" as their topic for the last half term of the school year. As you can see, this has involved the Offspring creating his own superhero character, Ant Man, and storyboarding the adventures of Ant Man on the school PC. The basic premise - dragon sets fire to houses, everybody shouts 'help!' then Ant Man saves everybody - is high concept enough to be worth a few million to the canny movie executive who never lost any money underestimating the sophistication of fifteen year old boys, but I think we may have to flesh out the Ant Man character a bit before we can pitch this idea in Hollywood.

I'm thinking Ant Man probably acquires his super powers (lifting many times his own body weight, squirting formic acid, whatever) in the traditional manner (innocent picnic near a nuclear power/bioweapons plant, spoilt by mutant insect bite) but, ants being a social species, he soon discovers that he's not alone. As he becomes aware of his super powers, he also discovers that he belongs to a (telepathic?) swarm of gifted mutants who could use their powers to help and protect humanity, but face prejudice and rejection in "normal" society (and I'm totally not ripping off the X-Men here, because the X-Men can't squirt formic acid). It's blue skies thinking at the moment, but the Ant Man ("A-Men"? "Human Swarm"?) franchise could be massive.

Interestingly, the Offspring's very clear about one thing. He needs no prompting or questioning to declare that superheroes aren't real. Neither are dragons. Which got me thinking about our attitude to escapist fantasy. There's a subculture of people who get a lot of flack for allegedly taking comic books, or sci-fi/fantasy films, TV shows and books way too seriously. Grown men and women who go to conventions called things like Comic Con to buy action figures, or teach-yourself-Klingon DVDs and to dress up as their favourite characters.

Such people are figures of fun in mainstream society, stereotyped as emotionally retarded, socially maladroit geeks with nonexistent interpersonal skills, obsessing about things that "normal" people have grown out of. Like Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons. Or the Daily Mash's idea of the sort of people who are heavily into the "steampunk" fantasy sub genre.

It's probably political kryptonite, too. The revelation that former Labour MP Barbara Follett and her husband, the novelist Ken Follett, were trekkies was inevitably spun to make Babs look like some sort of weird space cadet (I've no idea whether the couple really dressed up in starfleet uniforms, but as the claim appeared in that well known fantasy comic the Sun, I wouldn't vouch for it being literally true, at least in our universe).*

What a bunch of weirdos, huh? Well, yes, but ... I'm also pretty sure that, except in a tiny minority of rather sad cases, the people who are into this stuff are like the Offspring. They know it isn't real. They're just doing what the rest of us do when we go to the pictures, or read a novel - temporarily suspending their disbelief to immerse themselves in a world which they know isn't real, but which entertains them. And by getting together to share and elaborate on the experience with a bunch of other like-minded people, you could argue that they're being a lot more sociable about it than a "normal" person who watches a mainstream TV programme or reads a popular book and doesn't share the experience with other fans.

Which has prompted some people to compare the world of fandom with religion. You've got a bunch of people, some of them in funny clothes, getting together to share a devotion that looks, at best, pretty odd to outsiders.With the important difference that the people at Comic Con, Wonder Con, the Doctor Who Convention and so on, know, like a bright five year old, that some stuff just isn't real. As Bob Seidensticker says:
 Society insulates Christians from reality as if they were Klingons at a convention.  I just wish that, like the Klingons, they realized that it’s all just pretend. 
Score one for fandom, which is well on the way to deserving as much societal respect as any organised religion - perhaps a tad more, since the dudes in the wookie costumes seem to have a rather firmer grasp of the difference between reality and fantasy than  the ones in cassocks and stoles. OK, fan events can be heavily commercialised and branded but, when it comes to the ruthless pursuit of material wealth, the churches have a centuries-long head start on them.

If I wanted to play God's advocate for a moment, there is one thing that organised religions have that gives them an edge over fandom - the collection plate. That is one positive aspect of the faith business - giving to good causes. It might not be the best way of helping others - 'Religion is a very inefficient route to charitable giving (imagine a charity with 90% overhead)' - but I reckon that it's only the lack of a modest bit of social philanthropy that stands in the way of Trekkies and Twilight fans seizing the moral and intellectual high ground from the clerics of various faiths. That and the fact that the fans are probably too busy having their own niche version of a good time to want to lecture everybody else about how to live their lives.

Apparently, if I was up to speed with popular culture, I'd have known that somebody's already bagged the idea of a supehero called Ant Man. Back to the drawing board...

* Even if they did have a pair of starfleet uniforms in their wardrobe, I'd have been relatively cool with that. I'm considerably less cool with the fact that Barbara was found to have overclaimed £42,458 in parliamentary expenses.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Shameful, frankly

Ian Tomlinson's final hours on 1 April 2009 were spent in bewilderment. He didn't care about the G20 protests. He just wanted to get to his bed. 

But the 47-year-old never reached it after he collapsed following a strike and push from PC Simon Harwood. Three years on, a jury at Southwark Crown Court has concluded the officer's actions were not criminal and he has been found not guilty of manslaughter.

'I think that is shameful, frankly', said Home Secretary Theresa May. Of course, she wasn't upset about an unprovoked, unpunished assault leading to the death of an innocent bystander. She was just upset that members of her own department might embarrass her by exercising their right to take industrial action after a long-running dispute over job cuts, pay and privatisation.

Because withdrawing your labour and making a fool of your boss is far more evil than snuffing out a an innocent human life.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Nothing to do with the jet stream...

In a groundbreaking relaxation of the Olympic branding rules, the London Organising Committee have finally conceded that God can use the protected terms 'summer' and '2012' in the same sentence, paving the way for Britain to finally have a summer at some point this year.


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Happiest Days of Your Life

Fond memories of school days from MMT in MK:
But in reminiscing fondly about my own experiences growing up going to a school with no uniform, I am suddenly struck by the memory of the only time someone in our class was ‘censored’ for their clothes.
There was a kid who came in one day wearing a Samantha Fox t-shirt – and this was Sam Fox in all her Page 3 glory, fully breastically nuded. Quite rightly, our “Shared Time” teacher ordered him to turn it inside-out for the remainder of the day – I’m not sure how he thought he was ever going to get away with that, even at Stantonbury.
It only strikes me now that this was a t-shirt in a child’s size (he wasn’t the tallest or broadest of 13 year olds), begging the questions a) who would buy / allow their kid to buy t-shirts like that, and b) who made them?  Page Three t-shirts for young ‘uns – for what better example of British life in 1988 could you ask?
 For the benefit of any younger readers, I should point out that "Samantha Fox" was a formerly popular geographical location, akin to Paris, Jordan or Silicone Valley.  For the benefit of older readers, do yourself a favour and get hold of a copy of The Happiest Days of Your Life. It's got Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford, not to mention Joyce Grenfell, as the insanely chipper Miss Gossage ('call me sauasage ... good egg, there's our croc!'). Lovely.

Update: if I'd wanted to be a tedious pedant, I'd have taken issue with the phrase 'begs the question' which doesn't mean what many people seem to think it means, but I liked the rest of this post so much that I'm disinclined to quibble.

Zombie apocalypse at the Telegraph

We've all, from time to time, held or spouted political opinions that owe less to rational analysis of what's going on than they do to prejudice or habit. Some people actually get paid to produce what Chris Dillow calls 'tribal grunts'. We're all, to a greater or lesser extent, guilty of having blind spots and prejudices, but it does gets a bit worrying when the same stimulus continues to provoke the same unvarying stream of Pavlovian drool for thirty-odd years without any sign of nuance, reflection, change, development or learning.

Take the news that the population's gone up, due to a combination of immigration and an uptick in the birth rate. This can only mean one thing - it's time for the Daily Mail headline writers to reach for the blood pressure meds and the caps lock - ('Population of England and Wales soars by nearly FOUR MILLION in just 10 YEARS' - no link provided because there are already more than enough angry people clicking on this). And in the good old Torygraph, Philip Johnston warns:
More public services will need to be privatised, the burdens on taxpayers reduced and people encouraged to look after themselves and make provision for their own future. Yet the reforms needed to bring this about are often resisted by the very people who promoted the population boom that has made them unavoidable. 
Really?  Has it never occurred to Philip, even a millisecond, that it might be more complicated than that. For example, what is the problem that we 'need' to solve through the tax cuts and privatisation? Is it, by any chance, the ageing population, with fewer people of working age supporting more pensioners (AKA the '"demographic time bomb")? The sort of problem that might be mitigated by more people of working age coming into the country, decreasing the average age of the population and increasing the proportion of people paying tax?

But that can't be right, grunts Johnston, because 'While many immigrants, such as those from Eastern Europe, are hard working and skilled, they and their families require housing and health care, and their children need schooling'. Assuming there's a significant uptick in the number of kids, (AKA the people who'll be working and paying taxes when Philip Johnston's in his care home) what does that do to the seriousness of the "demographic time bomb"?

And what's with the 'need' to privatise all these public services? This might have sounded like fresh new thinking in 1980 but it's what they've already been doing for the last 30 years, with mixed results. They've already privatised the low hanging fruit. Sometimes it worked, other times they privatised things like the railways that didn't make much sense in market terms, and didn't clearly make us any better off. Now we're left with the more difficult nitty-gritty services, have we really got good reasons to believe that privatising a service always makes it more efficient, or is this just an ideological reflex? What about the NHS, versus the notoriously inefficient private-sector-led US health care system? Looking at the performance of the fairy jobmothers at A4e, for example, I'd say the case for outsourcing employment services hasn't been proved by a long chalk. And whilst we're on the subject of private contractors with alphabet soup monikers, if 'private=good, public=bad', why's the army stepping in to do G4S's job?

And, as for these tax cuts, well, going easy on tax collection certainly worked out well for the Greeks, didn't it?

I'm sure somebody with a bit more knowledge and analytical skill could produce arguments that I'd find harder to dismiss, but Johnston's not even trying here - he's just shambling on as if the way to win an argument is just to repeat the same message over and over again until your opponent eventually dies or something.

By rights, the dominant rightist ideology of the last generation or so should be dead by now, killed in the great car crash of 2008. Instead, like a zombie in a horror film it lumbers on, undead, urged on by powerful reflexes from deep within its decaying brain stem ... 'must ... stop ... immigrants ... urgh ... must slash taxes  ... must ... privatise ... mmm .... BRAAIINS!!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Parasites and vampire squid ink

When Matt Taibbi called Goldman Sachs 'a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money' he was, of course, being grossly unfair to your actual Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which is small, shy, mostly harmless and isn't even a real vampire.The 'vampire squid' line is a great piece of hyperbolic outrage provoked by the hyperbolically outrageous behaviour of the Masters of the Financial Universe, but you wouldn't learn much about zoology from Taibbi's Nature Notes.

If we were looking for a more accurate analogy for the behaviour of ruthlessly manipulative and socially harmful financial institutions, perhaps a parasite like Toxoplasma gondii, which hijacks host organisms and manipulates their behaviour in order to thrive and survive, might be a better candidate. Or the crab parasite Sacculina that injects itself into its host, which it turns from an independent organism into a neutered zombie brood chamber for incubating Sacculina eggs. Or the parasitic ichneumon wasp, jamming its ovipositor into the flesh of its host, all the better to let its maggoty offspring eat the paralysed victim from inside, a process that fuelled Darwin's doubts about the benevolent, merciful entity that was allegedly in charge of things:

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars...

Substitute 'the invisible hand' for 'God', 'financial institutions' for 'Ichneumonidae' and 'nations' for 'Caterpillars' and you've got a pretty neat summary of how parasitic financial institutions have been sucking the life blood out of economies. What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful blundering, low and horribly cruel works of Wall Street and the City of London.

So, on the whole, I'd say that Goldman Sachs and all those other delinquent financial institutions are more like manipulative parasites than squids. Where we do see squiddy behaviour, it comes from high profile politicians and thinkers who want to draw attention away from the misdeeds of the rich and powerful with a distracting smokescreen. Here, for example, is post-ideological ideologue and Reith lecturer Niall Ferguson, expending his store of squid ink to shift the blame from the reckless, too-big-to fail, mollycoddled, state-supported financial institutions on to the 'profligate' generation some of whom had the cheek to enjoy a comparatively decent standard of living and have a relatively comfortable retirement to look forward to:

It is perhaps not surprising that a majority of current voters should support policies of intergenerational inequity, especially when older voters are so much more likely to vote than younger voters. But what if the net result of passing the bill for baby-boomers’ profligacy is not just unfair to the young but economically deleterious for everyone?

Don't look at the banks, look at those selfish old hippies, what with their winter fuel allowances and refusal to die in the poorhouse, they're the ones who've been sucking us dry. Play one part of society off against another and watch the real perpetrators slip away in a cloud of ink. Fortunately, you can't fool all of the people all of the time:

The young need a start and wouldn't it be good if they too could look forward to some liberty at the end of their working lives or even that people should continue to work if they want to? If the problem is about how we enable the young to become the contributors they desperately want to be in a contracting economy, then the problem is the contracting economy, not pensioners. One generation doesn't have to be supported at the expense of the other. Of course, eventually they are the same people. The old were once young and the young, if they are lucky, will be old. And, if I remember correctly, there is something else that differentiates people and their life chances at the moment that seems to be a bit more permanent and pertinent. What is it again? Oh yes; class.

If you don't succeed in setting the old against the young, the squiddy apologists for the parasitic overclass have plenty more ink where that came from - set the employed against the unemployed, the able-bodied against the long-term sick, people who were born here against immigrants, private sector employees against public sector employees, home owners against council tenants, grammar-school/faith school /academy-loving middle-class parents against the disruptive kids in 'bog-standard' comprehensives ... The too-big-to-fail, too-convoluted-to-understand corporate leeches and their millionaire symbiotes in the political class disappear behind the inky haze of internecine resentment and live on to parasitise us another day.

The big fish will carry on getting away with it, so long as the little fish carry on fighting each other.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Montezuma's breakfast

In our house, when I were a lad, we sometimes used to eat something we called a "Mexican eye" . Take one slice of a sliced loaf, cut a circular hole in the middle, part-fry it, break an egg into the middle, then finish frying, until you end up with a piece of fried bread with a fried egg in the middle. A plate of Mexican eye was traditionally accompanied by my dad cracking some gorily unamusing ocular-themed joke on the lines of 'How do you make a Venetian blind? Poke his eyes out!'

Here's one I made earlier:
It's not an entirely faithful recreation of this cholesterol-laden childhood treat - for the authentic 1960s/1970s vibe, use white bread, rather than the seeded granary thingy we had in the bread bin and fry in something suitably retro like Spry Crisp n' Dry or Trex.

I've tried to get all nostalgic with people over this snack, but nobody I've ever met outside my immediate family has a clue what I'm talking about. When I explain what I mean by "Mexican eye", they tell me it's just a variation on "eggy bread", a dish a lot of other people seem to have grown up with, but which we never cooked in our house.

Mr Google's been no help on my nostalgia quest - when I type in "Mexican eye" I get information about things like Cuete a la Mexicana, a Mexican-style roast made with eye beef, (AKA tenderloin). Alternatively, up pops something extremely NSFW (Urban Dictionary presents some rather eye-opening material if you type in the phrase "Mexican eye" - I won't link directly, but smut buffs now know where to go).

So, it looks as if me and my family are more or less on our own on this one. Is there a special word for unshared nostalgia? There should be.

TV is bad for your health

Since 9/11, a total of 238 American citizens have died from terrorist attacks, or an average of 29 per year. To put that in some perspective, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the average American is as likely to be crushed to death by televisions or furniture as they are to be killed by a terrorist.

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action 

Being alert to the tottering wide-screen telly threat and the IKEA self-assembly wardrobe of death doesn't, of course, mean that we should reduce our heightened state of readiness when it comes to the very real menace of hymenoptera attack.

If you suspenct anything, call the confidential manual handling/pest control hotline right away.


Monday, 9 July 2012

I love the smell of wet cherries in the morning

If you came across the intriguing phrase 'they are paying $600 a day for the helicopter to blow dry their cherries' you'd just have to read on, wouldn't you? Full story here.

Mending the political system

After a weekend filled with distracting headlines about Murraymania and the big banks competing to see who can get the ethical bar lowest in the Libor Limbo competition, it's good to see that our Coalition government hasn't been diverted from its core mission of pulling together to mend the political system.

This week, Conservative backbenchers are preparing to rebel, on principle, to stop us being allowed to elect the people who scrutinise legislation in our, currently unelected, second chamber. If the Conservatives do this, outraged Lib Dems are threatening, on principle, to stop supporting Conservative attempts to gerrymander the electoral boundaries. Oh, and after frantic lobbying from bank chief executives, that George Osborne's off to Europe to make sure that nobody stops British banks continuing to incentivise their top people with those lovely fat bonuses that have done so much to embed efficiency, stability and rectitude into our financial system.

Where would we be if these paragons of principle hadn't decided to pull together and govern in the national interest?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Hands off Ann Widdecombe!

I've just been having a bit of fun at the expense of an American right-wing religious nut who's apparently claiming that "liberals" are trying to "outlaw chastity". I'm sure that the sort of people who'd be inclined to agree with the nut in question would argue that I've unfairly taken his words out of context, for the purposes of cheap mockery, as indeed I have. So, let's take a quick look at the context, because it's quite interesting.

The blog in question is subtitled an "Orthodox Catholic commentary on current events", which gives you some idea of where this guy's coming from. Given the context, it's probable that the rhetorical assertion that 'Refusing to have sex (chastity) must be outlawed because that encourages us to believe in God' isn't to be taken in the literal sense that most people would understand. I think that's what's really riling this guy is the suggestion, from critics of the Catholic Church, and from some liberal Catholics that maybe priests should be allowed to have consensual sex with adults, rather than being compelled to submit to a lifetime of celibacy that they sometimes can't handle, with occasionally tragic results.

So, I'm guessing that, at least in his more lucid moments, he realises that nobody's really plotting to put a law on any statute book outlawing celibacy. What's probably rattling his cage is the suggestion that celibacy for Catholic priests should no longer be compulsory. Which gives an interesting insight into the workings of the authoritarian mind, weird sort of place that it is. Just imagine what a scary place the world would be if you believed, as these guys seem to, that the only alternative to banning something is making it compulsory.

That, apparently, is how the world looks to people who've got no concept that adult human beings might actually be able to make free, informed choices about how to live their lives, without some higher authority telling them what, or what not, to do. There really are people out there who believe that not banning something is exactly the same as making that thing compulsory. Here for example, is a real outraged response to a Guardian article entitled 'Anti-gay adverts pulled from bus campaign by Boris Johnson':
I'm afraid that, before too much longer, they'll make it compulsory to be homosexual in this country. And Muslim, possibly. Christianity and smoking will be abolished in case they offend someone.
There really are people who are that batshit crazy out there. And these people who have the vote.

The people who need to read and understand this probably won't, but I'll say it anyway, because it apparently needs saying. Adults with the capacity to make choices about how they live their lives and what they do with their own bodies should be free to make those choices, subject to those choices not causing harm. I understand that there are people out there who don't like other people having freedom of choice but they need to understand that it really is none of their damn business.

Which brings me to Ann Widdecombe. I've never had much time for her politics, or her social views, and her re-invention of herself as the nation's favourite celebrity eccentric great aunt leaves me completely cold. But I do have a certain amount of sympathy for her when moronic interviewers subject her to the inevitable stupid, prurient and intrusive questioning about her celibacy. She's a grown woman, for heaven's sake and she's got as much right not to have sex as anyone else has to have it with a consenting partner of an appropriate age. If Widders' idea of a great night in involves a chaste mug of cocoa and an improving book and she doesn't want to say anything more on the subject, that's just fine by me and anybody who persists in cross-questioning her on the subject is just being insensitive, voyeuristic and bloody rude. It's a choice - neither banned or compulsory. We don't all have to be the same, we don't all have to like the same things, or do the same things and we've all got the right to a bit of privacy. That's what freedom's all about.

If subjecting people who stray just a little bit from approved societal norms to inquisitorial witch hunts was just the hobby of a few fringe right-wing religious nuts, things wouldn't be quite so bad, but I despair when I see such narrow-minded bigotry on mainstream prime-time TV.

For crying out loud, people, what the hell's wrong with just letting adults get on with their own lives, so long as they're not doing any harm?

The camapaign to outlaw chastity

I hadn't previously come across this particular conspiracy, but it's been spotted by an eagle-eyed member of the persecuted religious right, so it must be true. Most of the blog post in question would be familiar to British readers as your standard Daily Mail comments section-style boilerplate whinge about health and safety gone mad (also known as 'the nanny state' by the sort of people who were actually brought up by a nanny). The last assertion, with its startling claim that teh liberulz now want to outlaw chastity is, however, a new and original addition to the liberal conspiracy theory:
 Action is outlawed
So, trans-fats must be outlawed, because trans-fats are likely to increase heart disease.
Smoking must be outlawed or heavily taxed, because it causes lung disease.
Big Gulps must be outlawed, because they make us obese.

Non-Action is outlawed
Refusing to wear seat belts is outlawed because that increases car accident injuries.
Refusing to pay a tax must be outlawed because that leads to insufficient income for our betters.
Refusing to have sex (chastity) must be outlawed because that encourages us to believe in God.

The liberals aren't authoritarian in everything EXCEPT sex.
They are authoritarian in everything INCLUDING sex.
It'd be interesting to find out exactly which jurisdiction is planning to pass this extraordinary piece of legislation (presumably one of those outrageously socially liberal US states). I'm sure that citations will follow, giving specific details, for example, of which authorities or liberal pressure groups are planning to ban chastity, which age groups will be affected (presumably under sixteens and pensioners will be excused sex, so long as they can produce the relevant ID), the proposed mechanisms for enforcing any legislation, what frequency of sexual intercourse would be required to stay on the right side of the law and so on.

It all sounds more than a tad difficult to enforce, but there would be a potential upside for any legislature that passed such a law - they could expect an enormous uptick in tourism revenues and record takings in local bars* and fast food outlets, having become the holiday destination of choice for every teenage boy on the planet able to scrape together the cost of a plane ticket.  

Ah, the good old religious right. Whatever gave anybody the wholly unjustified impression that they were a bunch of swivel-eyed, sex-obsessed conspiracy nuts with a massive persecution complex?

* Update - I'd temporarily forgotten that, assuming we're talking about the Land Of The Free, under 21s probably wouldn't be allowed in bars.

The Large Hadron Collider is a colossal waste of time and money

Talk about re-inventing the wheel. Why spend billions on trying to understand how stuff works and where it comes from when we already have a perfectly good theory of everything?

For those of you who haven't been paying attention for the last few thousand years, we already know the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. It goes like this: everything in the universe comes from the thing that made the things for which there is no known maker and that causes and directs the events we can't otherwise explain and doesn't need to have been made. Simple.

Why, in the name of the thing that made the things for which there is no known maker and that causes and directs the events we can't otherwise explain and doesn't need to have been made, would anybody need a better explanation than that? Answer me that one, Professor Brian smarty-pants Cox.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Breaking news - Higgs boson is probably real, mermaids probably not

There is no evidence that mermaids exist, a US government scientific agency has said.

The National Ocean Service made the unusual declaration in response to public inquiries following a TV show on the mythical creatures.

It is thought some viewers may have mistaken the programme for a documentary. 

In a country where large numbers of people still mistake the Bible for a work of history, this doesn't surprise me in the least.

Occupy your bank account (UK) - update

As, I've said before, in a culture where money already talks loudly enough to drown out most other conversations, consumer activism (one pound, one vote) isn't my preferred form of political engagement. The coalition's already doing a very effective job of disenfranchising the poor, without the help of middle-class ethical shoppers. Still, these are desperate times so, with a few reservations, I'm cheered to read that:
Consumers increasingly feel they can no longer trust Britain’s big banks to look after their money, with many closing their accounts, latest research shows.

As public outrage mounts over a catalogue of banking problems, from the RBS and NatWest technical problems and bankers’ bonuses, to the Barclays Libor rate rigging scandal and the mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI), customers are moving their money elsewhere.

A YouGov poll reveals that 60 per cent of customers don’t trust the high street banks to look after their money, 49 per cent think they are dishonest – and 45 per cent think they’re incompetent.,uk

 Even better, the US 'Move Your Money' campaign, has now spread to the UK. A few retail customers switching accounts probably won't make much of a difference, but at least it keeps the most important issue in the headlines - the fact that a handful of hostile institutions are still big enough to take whole nations hostage. Never mind splitting up retail banks from investment banks - what about the anti-competitive conglomeration of power within retail banking itself, with the Lloyds and RBS groups controlling nigh on 45% of the UK market?

We've had a succession of governments who've claimed to love the idea of competition so much that they've spent years determinedly trying to squeeze it into odd places with questionable results (the railway network, education, the NHS). Yet even when political class should be able to impose a bit more competition on the banks, after the billions they've hosed into these failed institutions, it's left to a scattered Dad's Army of disgruntled bank customers and activists to vote with their feet.

Of course, apologists for the banks will warn of dire things, should anything happen to threaten their market share. I've already heard the ones about this sort of activism putting blameless bank clerks out of work and forcing banks to start charging for current accounts. If these are the best threats they can come up with, bring it on. After all, the big merging, acquiring and branch-shutting banks have already done a pretty good job of shedding jobs in the sector and I don't buy the idea that more, competing players in the sector would result in fewer jobs overall. Likewise, who's more likely to impose unwanted charges on customers? An oligopoly of big organisations dominating the market, or a host of smaller players competing for customers' business?