Nov 2009

Something for the weekend

Something of a departure from the type of music I occasionally post here. I’ve been reading a lot about Brendan Behan lately (though not, I must admit, reading a lot of Behan’s work — which is close to the top of my ‘to do’ pile). Behan was a writer, a drunk, an Irish revolutionary, a convict. And many other things.

His first play was The Quare Fellow, set in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin and inspired by his own time spent there. The play opens with a song… a dirge almost… which has proven both enduring and influential, and has been covered by a large number of artists including U2, Bob Dylan, Cat Power, The Pogues and every single folk band in Ireland.

Exactly which version is the definitive one has, I’m sure, been the subject of many a Guinness-fueled dispute. For me though, it comes down to one of the two versions by The Dubliners. And as much as I love Ronnie Drew’s vocal, it’s the Luke Kelly vocal that I come back to most often.

The Auld Triangle by The Dubliners, with Luke Kelly taking lead

I’m intrigued to note that a collection of Brendan Behan’s aphorisms has been published. It’s out of print apparently, but thankfully Dublin still has a few decent second-hand bookshops.

I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.

The Bible was a consolation to a fellow alone in the old cell. The lovely thin paper with a bit of mattress stuffing in it, if you could get a match, was as good a smoke as I ever tasted.

I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

Brendan Behan

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

Nov 2009

Google number ones

Merrick has tagged me with one of those blog memes that I occasionally foist upon others; so it’s only fair that I step up to the plate on this one. He writes…

Give me five great things that your blog or websites rank number one in Google searches, then tag five other blogs. Bonus points if you manage to have any sexual content in the phrase…

Looking at the incoming links on my stats page, I was surprised to notice that I’m only the second result for ‘masturbating with a bicycle’. I’m constantly surprised by how many people arrive here having typed that into google. I suspect they’re rather disappointed when they get here though.

As for proper Number Ones, I seem to have cornered the market on…

  • CO2 per barrel of crude oil (this post)
  • effectively outlawing dildos in Scotland (this post)
  • don’t fuck with techno viking (this post)
  • Dublin to London by coach and ferry (this post)
  • rich in potent psychoanalytic symbolism (this post)

As for tagging others, I’m in more of a “have at this if you wish” kind of mood. But if you fancy having a go, leave a pointer to your post in the comments.

Keep on grooving.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Nov 2009

Climate Change disinformation

Over in the UK someone has hacked into the computer system at the University of East Anglia. Specifically the server used by the Climate Research Unit. Information was stolen and then publicly posted on the internet. It’s resulted in a field day for Climate Change Deniers. Indeed a piece in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed the stolen data as “the final nail in the coffin” of man-made Climate Change.

Sadly, it isn’t. Though few things would make me happier if it was. Frankly I can think of no better news than the revelation that anthropogenic Climate Change is some kind of scam cooked up by 95% of the world’s climate and meteorological scientists; that global industrial activity isn’t doing nearly as much harm to our ecological systems as previously feared. But the leaked information suggests no such thing.

What the stolen information does appear to reveal, however, is the fairly shoddy attitudes of a few climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia. They appear to have made some pretty callous comments about the death of a prominent Climate Change Denier. Perhaps more worryingly, though, the released information includes emails that seem to suggest that the scientists had made attempts to suppress data that might have contradicted their own results and put pressure on scientific journals to refrain from publishing papers by those who disagreed with them.

This is all very unfortunate and I’d like to think that these revelations will prompt swift apologies and perhaps even resignations if it can be proven that someone genuinely did falsify data or actively engage in censorship (as opposed to merely suggesting it in a frustrated email). Climate Change is too damn important an issue to become dragged down into the mud by the kind of fools who would risk adding to the scepticism and doubt by engaging in dirty tactics and scientific censorship.

That said, I do think this should all be placed into perspective. Any dirty tactics and scientific censorship that may have been carried out at the University of East Anglia are reprehensible, but they are as nothing when compared with the tactics of the fossil fuel lobby and those they have in their deep pockets. The scientists at the centre of this latest brouhaha are simply guilty of trying to fight fire with fire. It’s unacceptable and they should, as I said, do the decent thing and apologise, maybe even resign. But for Climate Change Deniers to cry “foul” is a bit bloody rich.

The evidence for man made Climate Change is entirely convincing, and there’s nothing in this latest controversy that changes that. Despite this — and for years before the University computer was breached — a vast campaign to suppress and discredit was indeed underway. But by and large it wasn’t being undertaken by climate scientists. Rather, they were the target.

I’m dismayed and more than a little outraged by the scientists who sought to emulate this malign campaign of disinformation and censorship. But I’m also rather contemptuous of those deniers who claim dismay and outrage at today’s disinformation, while gleefully championing yesterday’s and tomorrow’s.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying is painfully unfunny. Ricky Gervais is talented and can be a funny man, but he missed the target this time. A one-joke film in which the joke makes less and less sense the more you think about it. Within ten minutes I was finding the entire premise irritating rather than amusing. There’s a hint of clever satire but it’s completely drowned as a painful romance between Gervais’ character and one of the least likeable and sympathetic characters ever to appear on screen plays out in a world requiring more belief-suspension than is technically possible.

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying: Not a funny film, sadly.

Nobody can tell a lie, it seems. You can just about buy into that idea for 90 minutes. But it appears that everyone must always blurt out their worst thoughts at inopportune moments even when not asked a direct question. Not that they’re in a constant stream-of-consciousness; it just happens for comic effect. So it becomes a world filled with obnoxious tactless morons, not honest people. Even that might have survived as an enjoyable film had the writing and plot risen above the average, but they don’t. The protagonist falls in love with the most shallow and unlikeable woman in a world full of them, making it impossible to feel anything but relief when she spurns his advances and incredulity when she finally succumbs to his charms. Charms which consist essentially of (a) that she occasionally laughs when he’s around — though we don’t actually see very much of that, and (b) his dishonestly-acquired wealth and success. Her conversion is complete when she encounters a “chubby” kid being bullied in a park in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in cinema history (she didn’t want “chubby, snub-nosed children”, you see?)

An idea that might have had some potential is squandered by writing that tries at turns to be mainstream romcom, social satire and crass sex-comedy and never convinces with any of them. Overall, avoid.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Nov 2009

Double Rainbow

I clicked over to The Virtual Stoa just now and noticed that Chris had posted a picture of a double rainbow. I figured this was as good a reason as any to post this photo taken from my window a couple of days ago. Sadly the second rainbow had already begun to fade a little by the time I grabbed this snap. You can still just about make it out though.

Double Rainbow

Double rainbow over Rathcoole

2 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Photos

Nov 2009

Something for the weekend

Jane’s Addiction | True Nature
How you treat the weak / Is your true nature calling

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

Nov 2009

A quick note about wind power

I’m generally a fan of engineers and the engineering mindset. Although I’ve now left that industry, I always felt that being an engineer meant that I was essentially a problem-solver. In fact, often when people asked me what I did, that was my response… “I solve problems”. Of course, the primary problem I tended to be solving back then was how to get fizzy pop into bottles as efficiently as possible which — let’s face it — probably doesn’t rank very high on the list of the world’s priorities. All the same, the last project I worked on prior to my career change involved saving a company that was about to go out of business. Safeguarding the world’s fizzy pop supplies may not be all that important, but ensuring that a couple of thousand people kept their jobs (many in some of the most deprived towns in America) seemed like a positive thing at the time.

These days my views about the nature of unnecessary economic activity call even that assessment into question, but we live and learn, eh?

Given my belief that engineers are the world’s problem solvers (leastways when it comes to physical systems), I was both taken-aback and dismayed when I encountered an article in The Guardian yesterday entitled Britain’s renewable energy targets are ‘physically impossible’, says study. It cites a study carried out by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which insists that Britain needs to begin looking at some of the more esoteric geo-engineering solutions to Climate Change because there is no chance of installing enough renewable power in the required timescale.

They talk about a lack of construction and installation capacity for wind turbines (as one example) and instead suggest untested and, in many cases, still-theoretical solutions. This seems bizarre to me when the obvious response to a lack of turbine manufacturing and installation capacity is to add more, not throw our hands up in the air and suggest that it’s somehow easier and more realistic to explore theoretical carbon capture technologies than it is to build some more turbine factories and installation vessels.

Certainly research should continue into these new technologies, but if the Institution tells us that we run out of turbine manufacturing capacity in 2018, then I suggest that increasing that capacity before 2018 might be something we should explore rather than announcing it’s impossible.

In 1997 the Spanish government made a decision to begin a rapid expansion of wind energy. About a week ago, on November 8th, a milestone was reached when — for a period of five hours — wind power accounted for 50% of the electricity being produced in the country (link in Spanish). And they are far from finished building turbines.

The technical problems are not insurmountable. The rapid expansion of renewables is not impossible. It just requires the political will. And engineers willing to solve problems.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009

Blessed are the merciful

Less than 12 hours ago the State of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammed. I’m sure most people will recall the killing spree he went on in 2002 when the media dubbed him “The Washington Sniper”. Muhammed stalked the suburbs and, from a concealed location, shot people at random with a high-powered rifle. By the time he was caught ten people were dead and four seriously injured. Prior to his execution, Muhammed expressed no remorse for his actions.

Over at The Guardian, Virginia Moffatt has written a column headlined John Allen Muhammed deserved mercy. But as is so often the case with the work of sub-editors and headline writers, this misrepresents her argument. I don’t believe Moffatt actually suggests that Muhammed deserved mercy. I believe her position is a little more subtle; a fact that escaped both the sub-editor and the legion of commentators on her piece insisting — with, I suspect, no little froth — that Muhammed deserved to die.

Moffatt’s primary objection to the execution of Muhammed, and I suspect to the death penalty in general, is not that murderers deserve to live, but that putting them to death “diminishes our humanity”. To me, this is the crux of the death penalty debate and the reason I too am absolutely opposed to it. Of course, Moffatt goes a little far and damages her own argument by suggesting that the execution of Muhammed “makes us no better than the murderer [himself]”.

Terrorising three states for a period of weeks by randomly killing residents, leaving 14 people dead or injured and co-opting a teenager into your murderous plan… well, that probably counts as a worse crime than catching and killing the person who did it. So I really wish that those who — like me — oppose the death penalty, would stop trotting out the “it makes us no better than them” cliché. It would be a very difficult claim to substantiate even if your audience was comprised entirely of wise moral philosophers with no personal axe to grind. But in the real world, where almost all of us allow our gut feelings and emotions to influence our judgment, it just sounds silly.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick by the first part of Moffatt’s argument, even if it also requires a certain overcoming of our gut reaction. A failure to show mercy does indeed diminish our humanity.

See, this is the bit that most people (judging by the comments on Moffatt’s article) fail to understand. We do not show mercy to people like Muhammed because he deserves mercy. We don’t show mercy because of what it offers him. We do it because of what it offers us. Just as forgiveness — which tends to come a long time after mercy — is less about what it offers those who have harmed us, than it is about healing ourselves.

To show mercy is to grant a victory to compassion over hatred. It reinforces the light while diminishing the darkness. It makes us better people. That is why John Allen Muhammed should not have received a lethal injection last night. Not because he deserved mercy. But because we do.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2009


Sadly, despite high expectations, the last film I reviewed (The Invention of Lying) turned out to be a turkey. So I’m glad, this time, to be able to point you towards a comedy that’s actually funny.


Zombieland: A very funny film.

And Zombieland is just that — a comedy. If you’re in the mood for a horror film, or even for a comedy-horror film, then Zombieland won’t scratch that itch. There’s blood and gore aplenty plus more Harrelson-on-Zombie violence than you can shake a banjo at, but because the entire film is played for laughs, and because the violence is of the Itchy ‘n’ Scratchy variety (one zombie is even killed by having a piano dropped on it from a building), there’s never a single moment of genuine horror. I’m not even sure there’s a single moment where the viewer is supposed to jump in fright; it’s a screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America.

But it’s a very funny screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America. The film follows Columbus, a college student, as he survives against all the odds in a world where pretty much everyone else has become a zombie thanks to a contaminated service-station burger (“Remember mad cow disease? Well, mad cow became mad person became mad zombie…”) The four characters (and with the exception of one of the great “As Himself” cameo appearances in cinema history, and a couple of brief flashbacks, there are only four characters in the film — the rest are interchangeable undead) are referred to by the name of the town they were born in — the aforementioned Columbus who narrates with a wonderfully dry self-deprecation, the girl he’s trying to get together with (Wichita), her 12-year old sister (Little Rock) and the ass-kicking Tallahassee played by Woody Harrelson who gets most of the good lines and steals almost every scene (“When Tallahassee gets going, he sets the standard for “not to be fucked with”).

The central running gag concerns The Rules For Surviving Zombieland, as drawn up by Columbus, which appear as three dimensional text that interact with the scene whenever they’re referred to. It’s not overdone and because the film — aware of its limitations and realising it’s more a live-action cartoon than a feature film — is only 88 minutes long including credits, you’re left wanting more rather than ending up tired of the joke.

And speaking of cartoons, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the film was co-written by Rhett Reese, one of the writers of Pixar’s glorious animated comedy Monsters, Inc. Despite the over-the-top gore and violence of Zombieland, there’s a similarity to the humour that shines right through.

The motivations of the characters (beyond mere survival) are similarly cartoonish. The two girls are travelling across the country to go to an amusement park they used to visit. Columbus was originally trying to return home but quickly realises he’s playing the “cherche la femme” role. And Tallahassee’s on the road trip because he’s searching for a final Twinkie before they all go out of date (“Pretty soon life’s little Twinkie gauge is gonna go empty”). Together they kill a bunch of zombies in imaginative ways and exchange some of the funniest Tarantinoesque dialogue to hit cinema screens for a few years. The way Harrelson delivers lines like “I hate coconut. Not the taste; the consistency” or “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic” had me clapping my hands with mirth, and right at the end of the movie his delivery of the three words “It’s too soon” had me weeping with laughter. You’ll understand if you see it.

I’m struggling to think of a film I enjoyed more this year. It’s as low brow as they come. It’s unashamedly silly and lightweight and isn’t going to change anyone’s life. But it is pure, unadulterated fun. It had me laughing from the first scene and rarely let up until the credits arrived. If you’re haemophobic, then it’s probably not the movie for you. Everyone else should check it out for an hour and a half of genuine hilarity.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Nov 2009

A free Mann

Equatorial Guinea is a pretty awful place to live. Unless, of course, you happen to be a member of the ruling elite. Despite experiencing recent economic growth thanks to the discovery of oil, the population largely live in poverty with almost all of the petroleum revenue being appropriated by President Obiang to fund a luxurious lifestyle for him and his inner circle, as well as ensuring the military are paid well enough to keep him in power. Although there are occasional elections, they are quite obviously loaded in Obiang’s favour and nobody is under any illusions about him being willing to relinquish power voluntarily. He is a dictator in all but name, and while he probably isn’t responsible for quite as much bloodshed and tyranny as the guy he overthrew, that’s really not saying much given the record of Francisco Macías Nguema. Macías reputably had a penchant for mass public executions to the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days. His regime was nightmarish in the most literal of senses… terrifying and surreal all at once, like a David Lynch film writ large.

If you’re an ordinary person in Equatorial Guinea, you have a difficult life and probably quite a short one.

It’s worth pointing out that when people describe Equatorial Guinea as “oil rich”, it’s a statement that needs to be placed in some context. In fact, with estimated recoverable reserves of a little under 2 billion barrels, Equatorial Guinea represents a fraction of one percent of global oil. However, with a population of less than 650,000 that should, in the right hands, be enough wealth to provide the country with a more than adequate health, education and social welfare system. Given their oil resources in proportion to their population size Equatorial Guinea could be a very pleasant place to live given radically different circumstances.

It’s the sort of place that could desperately do with a change in government.

And about five years ago, a group of men decided to try do just that. A bunch of South African mercenaries led by Simon Mann (a former British SAS officer turned soldier-for-hire) were preparing to launch a coup d’état when they were seized enroute to Equatorial Guinea. The Zimbabwean government intercepted their chartered plane when it touched down in Harare to take on supplies and Mann was extradited to the small West African nation to stand trial. During the trial allegations were made that Mann’s coup attempt was being backed by members of the British establishment including Sir Mark Thatcher (son of a certain ex-Prime Minister) and Jeffrey Archer (baron, bad novelist, prominent tory and all round git). These remain “allegations”, though Thatcher’s involvement in providing logistical support has been proven despite his insistence that he was unaware of the details of the plan and had no idea Mann and his private army were up to anything dodgy.

The details of the operation are obviously a little vague, but the basic plan seems to have been to overthrow Obiang and install either Mann himself or a local puppet as President of the country whereupon those who organised, financed and took part in the coup would reap the rewards in much the same way that Obiang currently does. I feel confident that largescale infrastructure projects and a redistribution of the oil wealth to the general populace wasn’t on the cards.

Mann was placed on trial in Equatorial Guinea and found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government. In July last year he was sentenced to 34 years in prison.

Now, it’s fair to say that Equatorial Guinea probably doesn’t have the most robust or transparent judiciary. People like President Obiang rarely install that kind of thing in the countries they rule. Dictators can be funny like that. Nonetheless, there’s no question — given Mann’s own public statements — that the basic facts are as stated. Surprisingly (or not if you assume that some kind of deal was done… cf. not the most robust or transparent judiciary) Mann has just been released having served less than a year and a half of his 34 year sentence. He appears to be a guy with an axe to grind and is looking to get even with the other coup plotters who left him swinging in the wind.

Despite the obvious relish with which some are anticipating whatever he’s got up his sleeve for Thatcher, there are others; Merrick for instance; who point out quite rightly that “a vicious mercenary is now free to enjoy his millionaire’s lifestyle and work on his book deal and film options”. This is hardly very satisfactory and is a somewhat lamentable outcome to the entire affair.

John Band, on the other hand, via that horrid twitter service that irritates me considerably, makes the following comments…

Struggling to see why Merrick upset re S Mann – Eq Guinea one of Africa’s vilest regimes, so no biggie if overthrown

and then (because twitter insists on breaking simplistic soundbites down into absurd soundnibbles)

If he’d been overthrowing an (even vaguely) democratic or liberal government, *that* would actually matter

Taken at face value (and Twitter is doubtlessly doing John a disservice by reducing his position to two sentences of less than 140 characters each) that’s a pretty dreadful sentiment. It seems to be saying that so long as the regime is bad enough, it doesn’t matter if rich westerners storm into an African country, kill a bunch of people, overthrow the government and then syphon off the mineral wealth for their own benefit. It’s an endorsement of violent imperialism because the suggestion that Mann and his 70 heavily armed mercenaries were going to liberate the people of Equatorial Guinea from tyranny is risible.

Perhaps they’d have set up a regime that was moderately less oppressive? But that resolves into an endorsement of Obiang’s government given the fact that it is moderately less oppressive than the Macías dictatorship it replaced.

The reason we should be upset about the likes of Simon Mann and his establishment backers… the reason their actions should matter… is because military intervention and murder for personal gain should not be tolerated even if most of the dead were bastards. People like Mann are no different to the Obiangs of the world, even if he did go to Eton. And I’m a little taken aback that John seems to think it doesn’t matter if they go tearing around Africa pocketing the continent’s wealth at gunpoint.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion