Archive for December, 2004

A new story

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

I have started to translate another Selma Lagerlöf story of supernatural malevolence over at the Changeling. It’s not improving, but it is wonderful.

A kist of men’s members

Tuesday, December 28th, 2004

Louise brought this up. Witchcraft, in seventeenth century Scotland, was not an organised professions with certification authorities, Worst Practice committees and the other appurtenances of the modern caring professions. Competence was more informally marked: the witch in this story kept a kist [chest, cf Swedish kista ] of men’s members1 to show she meant business. That detail, however, is omitted in Walter Scott’s retelling of the story (after the fold here).

1 Nowadays we’d say “a box of Hewitts”


Smoking righteous turkey

Monday, December 27th, 2004

Whatever they do for Christmas in San Francisco, (and it probably involves unnatural acts with tofu rather than turkey) Andrew Orlovsky has not held back:

Online has always been a promiscuous communications medium: it’s easy to step on and step off, so you can vomit over someone and leave without facing the consequences. It’s why the internet has great flame wars and lousy discussions. Perhaps online is doomed to attract fluffy thinking, too, although that can’t explain why it attracts such Panglossian fantasies as the ‘blogosphere’ and Wikipedia. (The Wikipedia is the open-to-all reference source that’s as good as its last entry. It was started and is sustained by Ayn Rand nuts, and frankly it reads like it; but it has yet to feature on the evangelicals’ radar: which is when the fun will really start).

I think he may be right about this danger to the wikipedia, perhaps because I spent all afternoon drinking claret and talking about Scottish witch trials.

gone down in smoke

Monday, December 27th, 2004

My mother in law gave me for Christmas an extraordinary illustration of the evils of heroin. It wasn’t meant like that. But the Grateful Dead movie was the last sustained piece of work Garcia did before he started smoking “Persian opium”; in fact I believe he got the habit while editing the film. The band was already damaged artitistically as well as in other ways by cocaine. You can hear this in the frenzied repetitive tuneless competence of a lot of the early Seventies jams, though, to be fair, it seems to have improved Billy Kreutzman’s drumming enormously. But in 1974, when the film was made Garcia still listened to the others, still bubbled, and still looked alive on stage. By the time he died, twenty years later, he looked and acted like the harvested giant on Cordwainer Smith’s planet Shayol.
That wouldn’t perhaps have mattered, except for my feeling that after about the end of 1977 he never played another note that sounded sincere.

Political correctness gone mad

Friday, December 24th, 2004

Today’s Telegraph splashes on the news that the NHS is running out of heroin: Chiron, the firm that supplies the NHS, has suspended production while it tries to sort out problems with the flu vaccine it makes. Apparently the NHS gets through 640,000 ampoules of the stuff every month.

But, of course, the Telegraph can’t say that the NHS depends on heroin. Instead, it explains that “Thousands of patients with cancer who are approaching the end of their lives depend on diamorphine for effective pain relief. It is also used to treat heroin addicts.” Diamorphine is heroin. That’s the point. That’s why it is used to treat heroin addicts. This, surely, is political correctness gone mad, and at the Telegraph of all places. Bah! Humbug! Merry Christmas to you all.

A reminiscence of the Thirties

Sunday, December 19th, 2004

We were talking to Mary Midgley about her schooldays this evening, and she said that in the Thirties, when she was at achool at Downe House, many of the girls kept on their bedside tables photographs which showed their sisters or even their mothers being presented at court. What would the contemporary equivalent be? I dont mean ‘what would be the pictures that girls in Downe House today keep on their bedside tables?’. I know, because I have seen dorms there (don’t ask). But what would be the equivalent badge of belonging to the ruling class?

PS, for the biologically inclined. Yes, the school is named after Darwin’s home, and was started there; but it moved to Berkshire after the first world war.

Orwell retrospective

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

“When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradicitons and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.”

I found this rather famous quote in my disintegrating copy of George Orwell’s Collected Essays this morning. What’s interesting about it now is not its obvious truth, but the way in which the sphere of what Orwell called “politics” has expanded in the fifty sixty years since he wrote. The concept of a weekly budget is frightfully old-fashioned. Certainly no journalist could assume, as he does, that his readers will all draw one up. Magical thinking now affects politicians as much as voters — how else is one to interpret Mr Blunkett’s announcement that he has sacrificed his career for the sake of his son? What possible benefit has the son derived from all this? Almost every trend in the advertising-supported media since Orwell wrote can be interpreted as increasing the magical nature of modern thought, to the extent that “reality-based” becomes a term of contempt for those who have no real power.

This makes a problem if one would like to work for reality-based publications, and enlarge, in general, the worls’s stock of reality. What is it that creates a demand for this, rather than magically based pap? Two things I can think of. the exercise of real power, with the consequent possibility of real failure based on your own bad judgement. For most people, this applies only when they are managing their investments. The Financial Times remains a good paper. But it is also true in the ruling classes of an empire, or else they don’t get much to rule for very long. Secondly — don’t all laugh — some kind of religious commitment to the truth. About half the people I have met who really seemed to care about the truth of their statements about the world have been Christians or otherwise religious. That’s a pretty disporoportionate figure.

Looking again, I wonder whether the mediaeval church didn’t have a point when it prohibited usury. Orwell’s touchstone for reality-based enquiry is the simple question “Can I afford to buy this?” — and this is the one question which modern, ad-supported media try to exclude from serious considration.

O tempora

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

There are people outside this country who still suppose the Times is a serious paper. For their benefit — and just because it’s fun — here’s something I wrote for the CT this afternoon.

The national census data on religion came out two months ago, when the Guardian gave it a big spread. Jonathan Petre couldn’t then get a story into the Telegraph but squeezed a Sunday for Monday out of it on December 13th. The next day the Times gave the job to someone called Stephanie Marsh. She wrote that “There are fewer Roman Catholics living in the North East than anywhere else, at just 0.03 per cent of the population. The South East has the highest percentage of Roman Catholics, at 0.4 per cent of the population.”

It’s true this is exactly what the Census spreadsheet says. In fact, it makes some even more sensational claims: that there are, in all the North East of England, only 951 Roman Catholics and seven Anglicans; there are only 577 Anglicans in London. Obviously, Ms Marsh didn’t realise that “Anglican” means Church of England, or she’d have had an even better story. According to these official government figures, there are more Satanists (1,525) than Anglicans (1,134) in England and Wales. Why spoil such a wonderful story by reading the question on the census form?

This asked people to declare if they were “Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)”. 37,046,500 people did so. Of these, at a reasonable guess, five million are Roman Catholic. What the figures in the Times story show is size of the minority of Christians who, like Ms Marsh, found the census question difficult to understand.

Any reporter can make a mistake: but subeditors are there to keep mistakes this ludicrous out of the paper. It wouldn’t happen on the Mail. That must be the elusive difference between a “compact” and a “tabloid”.

just a thought

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

If they sequenced the DNA of an American student, would she become an example of open source coed?

a rather frightful symmetry

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

It’s often remarked that to be “pro-life” in the US context correlates quite strongly, among voters, with support for the death penalty. LIfe, it would appear, is sacred from conception until birth.

But there is also a curious symmetry between opponents of the death penalty, and opponents of euthanasia and living wills. For opponents of the death penalty, the danger that an innocent person might be killed far outweighs the benefits of killing the guilty — some of whom even the most determined opponent would agree are no great loss to the world. For opponents of euthanasia, the idea that one innocent granny might get bumped off by her greedy children far outweighs the suffering of all the grannies who might want to die, and whose children also — genuinely — wish them free of suffering.

What’s interesting is how natural it seems to apply consequentialist reasoning to the one case and not the other. Of course different people find different applications more natural. Myself, I am anti-death penalty and pro euthanasia — at least some sorts of euthanasia. Iain Duncan Smith is pro-death penalty, but implacably opposed to the idea of people dying when they want to. I expect the gene for this distinction will be along any moment.