Feb 2008

Doublethink (part 326)

Prince Harry interviewed on Channel 4 News tonight:

“I would never want to put somebody else’s life in danger”.

From the man who’s been calling in air strikes on buildings for the last ten weeks.


2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

The sorry state of journalism

On a good day, this blog receives about one hundred and twenty unique visitors. On a slow day, that drops to about sixty. A little over half my visitors arrive via google searches (and it is almost exclusively google these days; other search engines fall a long way behind) and read a single page before leaving, never to return. Without doing too much statistical analysis, I believe I probably have 50 or so regular readers; people who either have me saved to an RSS reader, or who visit a couple of times a week to check for new stuff. In other words; my readership is tiny.

So I have absolutely no illusions about the influence of my occasional witterings. If garnering a wide audience was my goal then I’d have given this blogging lark up as an abject failure years ago. And the fact that it has been years and I’m still trundling along with a readership that has remained eerily consistent (excluding that week I got linked from Joss Whedon’s blog and my visitor numbers saw an almighty spike to several thousand per day until the link dropped off the front page of whedonesque, at which point the numbers plummeted just as suddenly) suggests that on some level I’m perfectly happy posting the occasional message here to be read by a handful of people.

I dearly hope that none of you fifty lovely, discerning, cultured (and outrageously good-looking) people feel you’ve wasted your time after visiting, but I must shamefully confess that you’re probably not reading my best writing. My quality control here isn’t always the highest, and certainly there’s very little here that I’d feel happy charging someone money for. This is why, for instance, I felt so uncomfortable when a couple of my pieces were included in last year’s Blog Digest (I could have just said ‘no’ of course, but that would have been too fucking precious for words).

Nonetheless, despite the fact that I don’t give quite as much care and attention to a blog entry as I might to a chapter of a novel, or a poem, or an academic essay; and despite the fact that I’m not charging anything except a few short moments; I’d still like to think that, at the very least, I’m not guilty of foisting complete shit on my readers. This is why I find myself increasingly frustrated with mainstream journalism and the lazy, dreadful writers who seem more than willing to serve up a steady diet of ill-informed garbage.

Take (via Chicken Yoghurt) this reaction from Benedict Brogan of the Daily Mail to the Climate Change protest at the British Houses of Parliament this week: Having picked up one of the paper aeroplanes being thrown by the protesters from the roof of parliament, he revealed it to be…

… a photocopy of an email from someone at BA to a Dept of Transport official about something complicated that I can’t be bothered to read.

This isn’t some junior reporter on work-experience. This is the paper’s political editor! I mean, none of us expects much from the Daily Mail, and while Brogan’s candour is refreshing if nothing else, it still boggles the mind. Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t the job of political editor of one of the largest circulation newspapers in Britain entail — oh, I dunno — bothering to read and understand the events of the day prior to writing about them? Is it really too much to ask? (Obviously)

And nor is it restricted to the complicated issues, or even to the crappier papers. The Guardian has just published a piece by one of their music writers (ex-NME hack Steven Wells) which, in essence, defends the right of journalists (music journos at least, but there’s a strong implication that Wells would go further than that) to simply lie to their readers when they can’t be arsed to research the facts. I can’t see how this is anything but a spectacularly ill-judged piece for any newspaper to publish (albeit in the Arts Section of their online edition).

To explain briefly, an American magazine has been forced to apologise to The Black Crowes (an uninteresting rock band) for publishing a review of their new album by a reviewer who — it transpires — didn’t listen to it. The Guardian, as represented by Steven Wells, believes that Maxim Magazine should not have apologised; that it’s perfectly acceptable for a journalist to lie to their audience and write a review based on nothing more than their own personal prejudice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the reviewer should have forced himself (or herself) to listen to the entire thing (in this case, bizarrely, they couldn’t have done as they didn’t have a copy — merely a promo of a single), just that they should be honest… “having listened to one track from the forthcoming album by The Black Crowes, I was unable to bear any more. I guess if you’re a fan of dull, generic stoner-rock then this might interest you, and you’ll probably want to check it out if you liked their previous stuff. Me? I’m going to boil my head instead”.

Y’know…? Isn’t honesty the very least we should expect? I don’t care that Steven Wells is not a particularly good writer, as I can simply choose not to read him; but I do care that the mainstream media is willing to employ writers who clearly put far less time and care into their pieces than I do an off-the-cuff blogpost, and who simply appear incapable of performing the job they’re paid to do (whether that’s a political editor who can’t be bothered to understand an important issue prior to writing about it, or a music writer who doesn’t see a problem with dishonesty in journalism and is presumably happy to submit a review of something he hasn’t heard).

It goes without saying that I’ll be avoiding the writing of Steven Wells from now on (any music writer who can write: “If a band are any good at all they’ll play their best toon first. And that toon will deliver a killer hook in the first 30 seconds…” clearly doesn’t have the faintest idea about music, no matter how many singles he reviewed for the NME). And I’m unlikely to encounter Benedict Brogan again until the next time his drivel is highlighted by a decent writer. But between them, they’ve dragged the reputation of mainstream journalism even further into the pit of filth in which it’s been wallowing. And I’ll be reading The Guardian’s Arts Section with a little more scepticism in future. Can we assume their book reviewers bothered to progress past Chapter 1? Did the film critic walk out after the first five minutes? Seems like it doesn’t really matter anymore.

UPDATE 29-02-08 Uncanny!

12 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

The efficacy of anti-depressants

As most people will have heard by now (it’s been pretty widely reported), a recent study by a British University (Hull) suggests that…

… compared with placebo, the new-generation antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication. Given these results, the researchers conclude that there is little reason to prescribe new-generation antidepressant medications to any but the most severely depressed patients unless alternative treatments have been ineffective.

I’ve just finished reading the actual study (link above). It’s a statistical analysis of the available data, not a psychiatric / medical study in itself, so it was tough going and rather dull stuff for someone like me with no formal training in statistics. All the same, if this study is confirmed (and it’s important to note that it has only just been opened up to the peer-review process, so we shouldn’t leap to any conclusions until this has been done) then it’s a damning indictment not only of the pharmaceutical companies (who, after all, we kind of expect this kind of behaviour from anyway) but more importantly of the regulatory bodies all over the world who have approved this medication.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that the findings come as something of a surprise to me. Some years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression (on the severe side, but not within the “most severe” category… I did not require hospitalisation, though it was considered at one stage) and prescribed extremely high doses of one of the SSRIs investigated by the Hull analysis. I’m no longer taking them — I’m very glad to say, as I wasn’t a fan of the side-effects — but I do attribute my recovery in part to the medication. Needless to say, I’m rather intrigued by the possibility that I’d have gotten roughly the same benefit from a placebo.

Indeed, if anything, this seems to be another justification for my current belief that psychoanalytic psychotherapy (incorporating, though not restricted to, some of the techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is the best treatment for depression. It probably goes without saying, that particular belief is one of the primary reasons I’m studying what I’m studying (mind you, that’s a far longer article).

Because of the enthusiastic approval of anti-depressants by official regulators, doctors see it as a simple and efficient way of treating an increasingly common illness. Unfortunately, if — as it appears — the bloody things don’t actually work, then it means we’re flushing an awful lot of public money down the drain (or rather, we’re meekly handing it over to large corporations) which has an actively damaging effect on public health, as we’re underfunding other therapies which do have a clinically significant effect above and beyond that produced by a placebo.

As I say, we half-expect large corporations to fudge the figures in search of profit, but the regulatory bodies are supposed to be on our side. We employ them to root-out these kinds of false claims, but if this study is confirmed, it would appear that the FDA (and the others who followed suit) are guilty either of dangerous incompetence, or of deliberately putting corporate profits before the mental health of the public.

UPDATE 16:35 I was chatting with a friend today. His girlfriend was on the same antidepressants as I was prescribed (Venlafaxine) and like me, she found them helpful but is glad to be off them. He said, mischievously but rather perceptively, “aren’t you lucky you were taking them while they still worked?”

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

Then, It's War!

Some describe Duck Soup as satire. Personally I think “observational comedy” would be more appropriate.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Feb 2008

A book meme

Rob, over at Consider Phlebas, presents this meme for our delight and delectation…

  1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  2. Open the book to page 123.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five people.

Well, I have a bookshelf right next to my desk here, and there are plenty of books of more than 123 pages. So it’s a tad difficult to say which one is “nearest”. Therefore I’ve decided to grab three; a novel, a psychoanalytic text, and something from the bottom two shelves… the psychedelic section.

First up, the fiction…

He did not feel any temptation to tell lies to her. It was even a sort of love offering to start off by telling the worst.

“I hated the sight of you,” he said, “I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards.”

George Orwell | Nineteen Eighty-Four

Then the text-book…

One thing most contemporary critics and psychoanalysts would agree upon is that biological differentiations are inadequate, too many people seeming to cross over, at the psychical level, the “hard and fast” lines of biologically determined sexual difference. We thus begin with the hypothesis that there are males with feminine structure (defined in some way) and females with masculine structure (defined in some way).

What is of interest in Lacan’s way of defining masculine and feminine structure?

Bruce Fink | The Lacanian Structure: Between Language and Jouissance

And finally the more subversive text…

“Give us the child until he is five, and we will have him for life,” bragged some 18th Century Jesuit. The Jesuit order of that time, as Aldous Huxley later noted sardonically, educated Voltaire, Diderot, and the Marquis de Sade; obviously their techniques of brain-programming were not perfect. Nonetheless, most people in most societies do grow up as fairly accurate replicas of the previous generation.

Robert Anton Wilson | Prometheus Rising

I’ll not be tagging anyone with this. Run with it if you’re interested…

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Feb 2008

Happy St. Cyril’s Day

It’s the 14th of February, and as we all know, that means it’s the feast of St. Cyril.

Saint Cyril was born in Northern Greece, but took it upon himself to bring The Good Word to Eastern Europe and — along with his brother, Saint Methodius — is responsible for converting the Slavs. Saint Cyril also invented the alphabet that still bears his name (Saint Script, or as it’s sometimes known; Sanskrit) and used it to translate the gospels into Slavonic. The feast of St. Methodius is also celebrated today, as is the feast of St. Maro, founder of the Maronites and the first person to work out that food left to steep in a sauce overnight tastes much better when barbecued.

Interestingly, today is also the feast of St. Apollonius of Terni (the patron saint of purple rain), the feast of St. Ammonio of Alexandria (the patron saint of noxious fumes), the feast of St. Zeno of Rome (patron saint of logical paradoxes), and of course, it’s also the feast of St. Proto (patron of scale models and stuff that still needs testing).

I think that covers them all. Any suggestion that I may have missed someone will be met with a firm, but fair…

Bah Humbug in cyrillic

The idea for this post was shamelessly stolen from John Band.

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Feb 2008

The Host

A few nights ago I watched the Korean monster movie, The Host. Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a fantastic name), it’s very possibly the finest film of the genre*. Actually, now that I think about it, Jaws may well stake a firmer claim for that title… but being the second-best monster movie to Jaws is hardly a disgrace.

The Host

And the Jaws comparison is an apt one. Like Spielberg’s classic, The Host is actually about how a small group of people deal with this catastrophic presence that enters their lives (in this case a broken family… two adult brothers and sister, their father, and the young daughter of one of the brothers), as opposed to being about the catastrophic presence itself. The acting is quite amazing and as the tragedy unfolds, engulfing this fragile family, I found myself being genuinely moved by their plight. I’m not sure even Jaws drew that level of emotional involvement from me.

One major difference, however, between the two is the lack of a “Big Reveal”. There’s no “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene halfway through the film. Instead we see the monster in its entirety bounding along the riverbank, gobbling up fleeing people, within the first five minutes. I was surprised by this, as I was with a lot of the film. Certainly the manner of the monster’s death is telegraphed early. Even before we see the thing, in fact, within the first few minutes of the film, the perceptive viewer will be left in no doubt as to a crucial factor in the beast’s eventual demise.

But aside from this, there’s little about The Host that most viewers will find predictable. Central characters who are guaranteed to survive the inevitable Hollywood remake, find themselves casually killed off with very little warning. And to say that the ultimate outcome would not feature in a big-budget American movie is an understatement. Nonetheless, the low-key, tragic ending fits perfectly on a film that is far, far more thoughtful than any monster movie has a right to be.

The dialogue is mostly in Korean, though the occasional American character makes an appearance and is presumably subtitled in Korean for the home audience. In fact, there’s a surprisingly strong anti-American theme throughout the film. The film opens with an American scientist ordering his Korean assistant to dump toxic chemicals into Seoul’s Han River (with obvious results). Later on we see a news report stating that the United States has lost confidence in Korea’s ability to contain the crisis and is planning to dump “Agent Yellow”, a powerful chemical, onto Seoul. As we follow the family’s attempt to track down their missing grand-daughter (snatched by the monster at the beginning of the film), it’s against the backdrop of a city bordering on open revolt against the authorities.

It’s worth pointing out that there is indeed one heroic American character. But even his sacrifice is cynically manipulated by the authorities in order to further their own inexplicable agenda.

In fact, it is this perspective that makes The Host such compelling viewing. For once, we aren’t seeing the monster hunt through the eyes of the military, or some heroic monster-expert. Instead we get a citizen’s view of the complete mess being made of the situation by the authorities, while an ordinary family attempt to overcome not merely the nightmarish creature from the river, but also the utter incompetence of those in power.

One scene in particular springs to mind; Gang-Du, the central character, has been placed in quarantine having been splattered with the monster’s blood. He desperately tries to convince the police that his daughter is still alive. But he’s not a very sharp guy and has difficulty expressing himself clearly. Throughout the scene, he is separated from those he’s trying to convince by a thick sheet of semi-transparent plastic. Later, as he pleads with one of the scientists, he again finds himself separated (this time by the contamination suits worn by the officials), and shouts in frustration; “Why won’t anyone listen to me? My words are words too!” Rarely have I seen social alienation portrayed so well. And this is in a monster movie!

Watching the film, I was reminded more than once of the Japanese auteur, Takeshi Kitano. And that’s not a lazy “well both directors are from somewhere over there” comparison. Kitano is my favourite film director, bar none, and there are scenes in The Host (such as the one where Gang-Du and his father are running alongside one another by the river, Nam-il’s encounter with the homeless guy, and the wonderful final battle) which I found very reminiscent of Kitano’s work.

That’s not to suggest that The Host is a work of towering genius like Dolls or Hana-bi, merely that it transcends a rather one-dimensional genre and succeeds in being a genuinely excellent movie. Overall, this is a film I’d recommend very highly indeed. On the most basic level, it’s a damn fine monster flick. But there’s far more to it than that. Check it out.

UPDATE 22:45 I’ve just noticed that the review-quote on the English version of the film poster is “On a par with Jaws”. Pretty good call.

* It’s worth noting that I don’t consider either Alien or An American Werewolf in London “monster movies” in the strict sense. They fall very clearly into the ‘horror’ category for me. The Host, on the other hand, is not a horror film. It’s creepy, and there’s tension alright, but it’s not a scary film. Imagine if Godzilla had been really really good (instead of the steaming pile of shit that it actually was). Well, if you can imagine that, then you have something along the lines of The Host.

15 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Feb 2008

Media hyperbole in a microcosm

An item on the BBC website caught my eye. It’s under the headline “Giant palm tree puzzles botanists“, and is an interesting little piece about an obscure species of palm tree that literally kills itself in the act of flowering. It’s a floral form of autoerotic asphyxiation. Quite mad.

Tahina Spectabilis: So big it can be seen on Google Earth (or so it is said)

But the silliness isn’t restricted to the behaviour of the tree (surely destined to become a cautionary tale for monks all over the world), but extends to the caption that the BBC have added to the image… “The plant is said to be so big it can be seen on Google Earth”. Wow. Just think about that for a second. So big, it can be seen on Google Earth. Seen from space! It must be fricking enormous!

Well. No, actually. It can be seen from space alright. But only with the aid of a very powerful telescope. This makes it like every other tree on the surface of the earth. Here, for instance, is the tree in the grounds of Trinity College, under which I sit and have lunch when the weather’s fine.

Another tree: So big it can be seen on Google Earth (or so it seems)

So big it can be seen on Google Earth!

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

News from the Blog Wars

I tend not to get involved in the Blog Wars very much. I can’t claim to be a completely conscientious objector, though, as I have indulged in the occasional bit of Oliver Kamm-baiting in the past (just last week he described the invasion of Iraq as “nearly a failure“. Weirdo).

All the same, one thing that’s guaranteed to pique my interest and provoke my contempt is the news that one blogger has set a lawyer on another because of something they wrote. That’s the behaviour of a low-life. And it doesn’t surprise me to discover (via Justin) that it is the frankly absurd Guido Fawkes who has got lawyers involved. I can’t claim to be too familiar with the chap but I did read some of his blog ages ago and I’ve seen his silly appearances on Newsnight. He comes across as an utter arse, and a long way up himself.

Anyways, Tim Ireland at bloggerheads has begun to receive threatening letters from Guido’s lawyer because of something he wrote (for more info on the specifics of the case, follow that link).

Now, I should point out that the actual details of the case are rather dull, and — to my mind — completely ridiculous. It’s all very petty, quite abstract, and a long long way from the worst thing Guido’s been publicly accused of. In reality, Tim’s being targeted because he’s been a regular thorn in the side of Guido and his coterie, not because of anything he’s said on this occasion. This really annoys the hell out of me… using a lawyer as an attack-dog… legally harrassing* someone you don’t like because you can afford to. It’s nasty.

Tim’s always seemed like a good guy. Occasionally I think he can lose a little perspective and I’ve disagreed with some of his methods in the past (as he knows). All the same, he’s on the right side of the barricades, so to speak. And Guido’s bullying tactics are an outrage.

* It’s my view that setting a lawyer on someone is harrassment, pure and simple. It’s the tactic of the bully, and just because it’s legal doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion