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25
Aug 2010

… and the Tree of Nothing

I’m terribly busy at the moment, and I won’t be around very much over the next three weeks. I’m off down to Cork for a few days (my sister is getting married) and then I’m heading over to Serbia for a couple of weeks.

Anyways, while I’ll try to pop in here now and then and post something during my travels, they’ll most likely be flying visits. Links to interesting stuff, or the inevitable embedded YouTube vid.

Of which this is one. It’s a YouTube vid of a stand-up comedy clip. Makes a change from a music video, I suppose.

By and large very few stand-up comedians interest me. For me, Bill Hicks set the bar so high that most stand-up just sounds hollow and lifeless now. There are exceptions of course, and of those, Stewart Lee is probably the finest. He treads that line between social commentary and funny weirdness that’s so very hard to sustain. And it’s to his great credit that he manages it.

This is a clip from the first episode of his most recent TV show (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle) wherein he expresses his position on the Harry Potter books. The final line, and the way it’s delivered, made me laugh out loud.

8 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video


22
Aug 2010

Something for the weekend

Can’t go wrong with a bit of Christy Moore. Ireland’s finest folk singer (which is saying something). Always righteous, always passionate. This particular song was written by Shane McGowan and while I love The Pogues, I think the simple voice and guitar treatment suits Aisling better than their full band version. Enjoy.

Christy Moore
Aisling

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


21
Aug 2010

Hostile by default?

There were a couple of web forums that I used to participate in which I gave up on last year. I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of debate and the social aspect, but in one case the political slant of the forum shifted ground and I began to feel my views were less than welcome. The other I abandoned because it became infected by the hostility that appears to characterise so much of internet discussion.

I have since rejoined the former, but a recent visit to the latter revealed that it has descended into little more than a perpetual shouting match. And it’s far from unique. Take the discussions on any high traffic blog, or on news sites that allow comments, and you quickly discover a tirade of insults, accusations and outright nastiness. Any attempt to highlight this unnecessary unpleasantness is itself greeted with accusations of pomposity or passive aggressive behaviour. The participants on these forums have actually created a world where the expectation of civility is unacceptable and is met with incredulity and accusations of aberrant behaviour.

The hostile pose

And there’s a sense in which this saddens me. The internet is an amazing communications tool. Yes, it’s full of pornography, commercial advertising and enough hot air to rival a political convention, but the facility it offers for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of alternative viewpoints is extraordinary.

Yet we are squandering that opportunity.

Decent, intelligent people should be capable of discussing contentious issues without making snide personal remarks. On the internet, hostility has become the first resort rather than the last. And while people point to the anonymous nature of the medium as the reason for this, I’m forced to wonder why that very anonymity doesn’t counteract it. Is there really satisfaction to be gained from belittling a stranger who you will never meet? Being rude to a ghost in a machine may be easy, but what’s the payoff?

I’m no shrinking violet. I’ve fought my way through tough situations, as have most of us. I don’t get offended or hurt by this obnoxious behaviour, but I do get a little depressed. Depressed that this is how people treat one another by default. When there is no direct feedback involved, no person in front of you looking startled at the level of hostility you adopt for no obvious reason, we appear willing — indeed eager — to adopt that hostility. When it would be just as easy to assume a respectful and civil attitude as our initial starting point.

Such a shame.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


18
Aug 2010

First lines quiz

Books this time. Regular readers will recall the occasional quizzes I set where I list the first lines of a bunch of songs and invite you to guess the titles. Well, this time, prompted by Paul over at The Whole Damn World, I’ve decided to list the first lines of a bunch of books (both fiction and non-fiction) and see how good your memories are. Some are obvious, others far less so. Feel free to use google if you need to, but don’t post google-sourced answers in the comments.

Introductions, prefaces and prologues have been omitted, these are all “Line 1 Chapter 1″s. The first one is also the first one on Paul’s list, but it’s a great line to get the ball rolling. Also, there’s no more than one from any particular author.

Fiction

  1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.1984: George Orwell – Paul
  2. Later than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof.Vineland: Thomas Pynchon – Nosemonkey
  3. Daniel Pearse was born on the rainy dawn of March 15, 1966.
  4. I didn’t know that afternoon that the ground was waiting to become another grave in just a few short days.So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away: Richard Brautigan – m’hoop
  5. Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.
  6. In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne.
  7. I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.On The Road: Jack Kerouac – Paul
  8. The day had gone by just as days go by.
  9. May I, Monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding?
  10. Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more.
  11. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.Ulysses: James Joyce – Nosemonkey
  12. That’s good thinking there, Cool Breeze.The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test: Tom Wolfe – Paul
  13. Back in the late 1970s, when I was fifteen years old, I spent every penny I then had to fly across the continent in a 747 jet to Brandon, Manitoba, deep in the Canadian prairies, to witness a total eclipse of the sun.
  14. One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it — it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.Through The Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll – Larry’s Mum
  15. The year 1866 was marked by a strange occurrence, an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten.
  16. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald – m’hoop
  17. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.A Farewell To Arms: Ernest Hemingway – m’hoop
  18. That was when I saw the Pendulum.Foucault’s Pendulum: Umberto Eco – Nosemonkey & Larry
  19. Save the albatross…! Stop nuclear testing now…!
  20. The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.Neuromancer: William Gibson – Gyrus
  21. This time there would be no witnesses.Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Douglas Adams – m’hoop
  22. Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.War and Peace: Tolstoy – Nosemonkey & Larry
  23. At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound.Don Quixote: Cervantes – Nosemonkey
  24. Listen to my last words anywhere.Nova Express: William S. Burroughs – Gyrus
  25. My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons.Gulliver’s Travels: Jonathan Swift – Nosemonkey
  26. At nine o’clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed.The Idiot: Dostoevsky – Nosemonkey (half point for author but not book!)
  27. Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair.A Scanner Darkly: Philip K. Dick – Gyrus
  28. The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.Trainspotting: Irvine Welsh – Paul
  29. The chimes of San Salvatore broke into Josef Breuer’s reverie.
  30. May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened and having for the time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages; for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar.Maldoror: Lautréamont – Howard

Non-fiction

  1. In your schooldays most of you who read this book made acquaintance with the noble building of Euclid’s geometry, and you remember — perhaps with more respect than love — the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers.Relativity: Albert Einstein – UKLiberty
  2. Among the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke and irritate each other, Mr Burke’s pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance.The Rights of Man: Thomas Paine – Nosemonkey
  3. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.The Communist Manifesto: Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels – Paul
  4. All states, all dominions that have had and continue to have power over men were and still are either republics or principalities.The Prince: Machiavelli – Nosemonkey
  5. It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.
  6. Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Gregory Bateson – Gyrus
  7. All five elements basic to the study reported here — population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources — are increasing.The Limits to Growth: The Club of Rome – Phil
  8. When I was six months old, my parents moved from Kesswil on Lake Constance to Laufen, the castle and vicarage above the Falls of the Rhine.
  9. “Long long ago, when wishing still could lead to something, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, who had seen so many things, simply marveled every time it shone on her face.
  10. My research has led me to the realization that repetition automatism (Wiederholungszwang) has its basis in what I have called the insistence of the signifying chain.

Have at it.

21 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme


18
Aug 2010

Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s governing coalition (Kingsnorth: Back from the dead?). Actually, you know what? I’m just going to start referring to the current UK government as a tory government. The presence of the Liberal Democrats*, just like the involvement of the Greens in the government here in Ireland, is an irrelevance; a technical footnote rather than a meaningful truth. The only impact they have on the government is to allow the dominant party to float policies they always wanted to, but that might be unpopular with their own hardline supporters. So here in Ireland, for instance, we’ve had a carbon tax ostensibly as a result of the Green presence in cabinet. In reality, Fianna Fáil wanted an alternative revenue stream to help with the crippling deficit and were delighted to find one they could blame on someone else.

So let’s start again…

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s Conservative government. Prior to the election they had unambiguously stated that under their administration, any new power stations would have to meet a strict Emissions Performance Standard (EPS).

This would mean the carbon emissions rate of all electricity generated in our country cannot be any higher than that generated in a modern gas plant. Such a standard would mean that a new generation of unabated coal power plants could not be built in this country.

More than that, this pledge wasn’t merely a campaign promise (a term which, let’s face it, has become little more than a euphemism for “bullshit”), it actually made it into their Programme for Government (PDF file).

We will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.

As Merrick says, that’s clear, definite and unequivocal.

Three days ago, however, they admitted their pledge to introduce an EPS was basically just a lie to make them look more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Despite the unambiguous nature of their promise, they have shelved the EPS and will no longer be introducing legislation to implement it. Instead they will “open a consultation on the idea in the autumn with the results being presented to parliament as a white paper in the new year.”

Be under no illusion, that’s just a diplomatic way of abandoning the idea. It’s the modern political equivalent of holding a press conference and shouting “suckers!”

Of course, you could argue that anyone who believed a tory government would really implement a strict EPS kind of was a bit of a sucker. Sorry. But the fact is, it was pretty obvious that this policy would be unpalatable to any right of centre government in current circumstances.

Climate Change: nothing to do with us

See, the title of this post — Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change — expresses a very real tension that now exists at the heart of modern civilisation. As we lurch towards a looming energy crisis precipitated by the global peak of conventional oil production, many of the steps we might take to cope with that crisis will directly conflict with many of the steps we might take to deal with Climate Change (note: I read an analysis just this morning which suggests that “during 2011, OPEC’s spare capacity may be completely eroded”. This is a serious problem indeed, and will torpedo any economic recovery politicians and economists tell us is underway right now.)

Examples of this conflict are too numerous to mention, but include widespread deforestation to clear land for biofuel production, the draining of peat bogs and marshland for the same reason, increases in coal use (and the mind-bogglingly damaging coal-gassification process) to make up for shortfalls in oil and gas, the exploitation of oil shales and tar sands (also an incredibly damaging resource from an ecological perspective) and so on. All of these attempts to mitigate the energy crisis will result in the acceleration of anthropogenic climate change.

Yet we are ploughing ahead full steam with them. More than that, politicians who made explicit promises to restrict the damage that coal burning might do, for example, are abandoning those promises without even trying to deliver on them.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. In the case of coal-burning power plants in the UK, the government has realised that new electricity generation needs to be brought online within the next few years. The only alternative would be to mandate higher energy efficiency and ultimately a reduction in consumption. It is simply easier, politically, to contribute to Climate Change than it is to speak unpopular truths to the electorate. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that politicians will always choose the easy option above the right one. It’s almost a job requirement.

See, Climate Change is too intangible a problem to be blamed on any single government. And they know this. Power cuts, on the other hand, will always be blamed on the government of the day. So Cameron (and his counterparts in damn near every other party… let’s be under no illusions here, Labour would do precisely the same if they were in power) much prefers to contribute to an ecological disaster that can’t be pinned on him, than try solve a political one that can.

It’s a measure of the moral cowardice of the man and of the entire political establishment.

An energy crisis is looming folks. It’s very real, and it’s not far away. But we seem willing to burn down the entire planet rather than accept a change in our outrageous over-consumption. And this is despite the fact that our over-consumption doesn’t even seem to be making us all that happy.

* I’m well aware that I reluctantly endorsed a Lib Dem vote in the May election on the single-issue of electoral reform. In retrospect, I was wrong. A vote for the Liberal Democrats turned out to be a vote for an undiluted Conservative government and I would never knowingly endorse such a thing. Sorry about that.

AFTERWORD: those wonderful people over at The Onion have recently published a very funny, albeit darkly funny, article about our oil use. Check out: Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


17
Aug 2010

Incredible Justin Bieber track

I know nothing at all about Justin Bieber except that he’s a teen idol-type pop singer whose adoring 13-year old fans have used social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to turn him into a worldwide star.

There was a time, in my late teens and early 20s, when I’d have been made very irate by his massive success. These days I’m more tolerant of the tastes of others, no matter how bad they might be to my ears, and instead simply ignore the ocean of dross that passes for popular music. I know what inspires and delights me and I stick to that. Others can wallow in filth if they so wish… I have neither the time nor the energy to harangue them about the terrible choices they make.

That said, I have just learnt (via Twitter, inevitably) something new about Justin Bieber. And that’s the fact that if you slow down his song, U Smile by a factor of 800, you get a genuine ambient masterpiece. Seriously, check it out. Marvellous stuff.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio


17
Aug 2010

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

I have a lot of time for Slavoj Žižek. Which isn’t to say I agree with everything he’s ever said or written, but by and large I feel he is possessed of a rare wisdom and insight, coupled with a wicked sense of humour. Aside from anything else, I don’t think I’d have made it through Lacan’s Écrits if I hadn’t paved the way with a couple of Žižek books (Looking Awry and his excellent primer, How to read Lacan). I’d also highly recommend Žižek’s epic A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a three hour documentary that functions both as an analysis of the medium of film and an introduction to psychoanalytic theory.

Anyhoo, I recently stumbled upon this short animation (from the excellent RSAnimate) which condenses a recent lecture he gave on the dangers of so-called “ethical consumerism”. The original lecture can be viewed here (and is well worth a half hour of your time). But I’ll just embed the condensed version for those of you with shorter attention spans (the pretty pictures will help hold your interest ;)

UPDATE: Incidentally, if you watch the original, is it just me or does Žižek give the impression of having just taken a massive hit of cocaine?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video


5
Aug 2010

Something for the weekend

When I’m out walking with my mp3 player on, I often put it on shuffle and let it choose the vibe for me. Usually after three or four songs it’ll have found an album that I want to listen to and I’ll take it off shuffle. A few days ago it randomly hit upon What a Day That Was from the early David Byrne solo album, The Catherine Wheel. It’s not an album I listen to as much as some of his other work, but it’s been a joy to revisit. A mixture of songs and instrumentals, including several collaborations with Brian Eno, it was recorded as a soundtrack album for a dance company.

Now dance, as a spectacle, has never been something I’ve been interested in. I enjoy dancing, but not watching it happen. Whether it’s ballet or more contemporary stuff, it’s just not — as they say — the bag I’m into. Nonetheless, a few years back I tracked down an old VHS copy of a performance of The Catherine Wheel, partly out of curiosity and partly out of that weird completist compulsion that I still have for David Byrne’s work. Sadly, it failed to convert me and I never watched more than half of it.

Nonetheless, as an album, The Catherine Wheel is still a great listen. And that well-known Talking Heads concert film has a wonderful version of the song that drew me back to it. Enjoy…

What a Day That Was – Talking Heads
From the concert film, Stop Making Sense

Note: it was only after I published this that I realised I’m a full day early for “the weekend”. It’s just midnight and I’ve spent the entirety of Thursday convinced it was Friday. Isn’t it weird when that happens?

3 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video


3
Aug 2010

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s new film had me intrigued the moment I heard about it. After the runaway success of his big-budget comic book caper, The Dark Knight, it felt like he’d been given a blank cheque and told to let his imagination run wild. What could the writer and director of the excellent Memento do when given a blockbuster-sized palette to paint on?

Inception poster

Now, personally I was far less impressed by The Dark Knight than most people seem to have been. By trying to force comic book characters into the real world, it fell uncomfortably between two stools. It went to such effort to depict a gritty and believable world, yet was littered with obvious fantastical elements that just didn’t gel properly with the setting. It’s perfectly acceptable for Superman to don a pair of glasses and become Clark Kent, unrecognisable even to those closest to him. It’s acceptable because we know this is a comic book and we expect to suspend our disbelief on such matters. But when the film-makers seem to be suggesting that Gotham City is a fictional place but one that plays by the rules of the real world, then Batman’s disguise (a mask that fails to cover most of his face and a silly voice) just becomes a hole in the plot.

That said, it was visually impressive. Undeniably so. Despite the partial retreat from comic book sensibility, it remained stylish and sumptuous. Shades of David Fincher. And it was this that made me so interested in Inception. The constraints you must accept in order to get your hands on a major studio franchise put serious limitations on a film-maker’s creativity (as Kevin Smith explains in this wonderful anecdote about working on a draft script for Superman). So given how amazing Memento is, I was more than willing to credit Nolan with the good parts of The Dark Knight and absolve him of responsibility for the bad.

Which is why Inception held so much promise. Suddenly Nolan had the big budget and the creative control. Plus Leonardo Di Caprio plays the lead character; an actor whose recent work with Scorsese has been excellent. And then I heard the majority of the film was set inside the dreams of a character and my anticipation turned to genuine excitement.

But, as you’ve probably guessed from my tone, I was setting myself — or rather, the movie — up for a fall. The basic story is a good one… di Caprio plays a spy who, with a combination of training and technology, can enter the dreams of others (and bring a team of accomplices with him). While in the dream, he can subtly direct the attention of the dreamer and so access their memories and unconscious. He uses this ability to steal top secret information for high-paying clients. Then, one day, he gets a different request… to enter someone’s dream and plant an idea that will blossom into conscious action once the dreamer awakes. Specifically, Cillian Murphy — who has just inherited his father’s industrial empire — must be convinced to break up that empire.

Frankly that’s a fantastic plot and it could definitely make a great book or movie.

Unfortunately, it’s never going to be a great movie in the big-guns-shiny-metal / Hollywood action blockbuster genre. Having a shed-load of money to throw at a film set in dreams could have resulted in something utterly spectacular. Instead we have car-chases through mundane streets, fist-fights in hotel rooms, gun battles in the snow; all of which go on for far longer than they need to. That there are three separate sequences occurring at three different levels of the same dream is a good plot device. That they are three rather clichéd action scenes is a terrible waste. Especially since none of them seemed in any way dream-like, with only the shift between them illustrating that they’re part of the same dream.

And ultimately this is my main criticism of the film. It’s great failing. The dream sequences that take up the majority of the film are almost never evocative of real dreams. There’s an occasional Escher-influenced staircase, a couple of set-pieces where the environment shifts in unpredictable ways and one or two other optical illusions that provide pleasing little jolts, but almost nothing is authentically dreamlike.

Dreams are the product of a collision between our conscious and our unconscious minds. But despite plenty of talk about it, Inception never truly accesses the unconscious. Everything feels solid and rational even when the characters insist it’s not. The interminable fight scenes are no different to the fight scenes in any action movie. A train suddenly appears out of nowhere during a car-chase, but you don’t think “oooh… just like in a dream!”. Because it’s not just like in a dream.

Yes, the bit when di Caprio’s character finally gets to “the bottom level” of the dream gets vaguely interesting, but it only lasts for a few brief minutes (unlike the constant fist-fights).

In the end I emerged from the cinema feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve subsequently read reviews that complained that the plot got too convoluted, which — frankly — was the precise opposite of my impression. The plot took a glorious premise, one that could have become a brain-bending, visually magnificent masterpiece and instead played it dreadfully safe, offering up an action movie with a minor twist. Which is sad, because I know there was the seed of a great film in there, and based on Memento I suspect Christopher Nolan could have made it.

He just didn’t this time.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews


2
Aug 2010

On This Deity

Just a quickie, this. Must be something in the air… or p’raps a case of great minds thinking alike… but just as I return from my traditional summer blogging sabbatical, so Dorian Cope has resurrected the excellent On This Deity.

Billed as “Commemorating culture heroes & excavating world events”, On This Deity aims to present a daily ‘anniversary’ post (for a full year, no less), each one investigating a different historical event or figure from a perspective somewhat outside the mainstream.

Always fascinating and well-written (if last year’s beta version is anything to go by) it’s a worthy addition to any blogroll.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements