Wednesday, April 28, 2004


The name having come up in conversation, as it were, if you can call an email a part of a conversation (what would that be, a part of a conversation -- a versation?), I picked up Mark Billingham's debut from the library. I don't often read mysteries -- like all genre books, once you know the formula, they're so predictable that you could just as well write the things for yourself -- but I'm going through a phase (nothing too trying is making the reading list -- an Elmore Leonard, a James Lee Burke, good stuff that doesn't need much chewing).

I wish there was a way to say it was rubbish without sounding horribly jealous, but even if I cannot avoid that, I have to say it was bollocks of the worst kind. The writing was rubbish, lazy and cliche ridden (where but the lowest kind of genre fiction will you find "cold, flat eyes" -- for fuck's sake, can we not club this out of writers at high school?), and worst of all, relied on the reader's shared cultural knowledge. You'd need to be English to "get it". I can't think that an American would grasp what I do by the victim's being called a "Geordie slapper". Understand the words, maybe, but the nuance?

I won't tire you with the laboured psychology. You already know how these things work. The detective haunted by the one he got wrong, blah blah.

There are three sorts of whodunnit. My favourite is the CSI, Law and Order type: you know who dun the doing, but you don't know how the cops will rumble them. Next best is the genuine surprise. It isn't sprung on you exactly, you could have worked it out, but the doer is neatly delivered. In Burke's Jolie Blon's bounce, you know who one killer is, but both he and the other are delivered without your feeling you were spoonfed, or cheated.

Sleepyhead has a go at the third kind: it throws a massive twist at the end. This is old-school mystery writing. You can picture Poirot spinning on his heel and saying: "It was you, Colonel." Mostly, this sort of whodunnit irks the reader, because the killer was not discernible. Thinking back, you cannot quite see how the clues point to him or her.

But in Sleepyhead, it's worse. You know. I knew at least a hundred pages before the end. Wading through a hundred pages of hardboiled cop cliches (yes, I know he's being all postmodern and making his cop a stereotype on purpose, but let's face it, if you draw a stereotype and then do the usual with it, the postmodern thing goes by the by) to get to a denouement that has all the suspense of counting to ten isn't my idea of fun. Think yourself lucky I did it for you. It's the son. No one dies except the locked-in chick. No one, including the reader, seems to much care.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Back on the ranch

For a man who practically lives online (or at least in front of a PC), it's almost distressing to be out and about in the sunshine. Almost.

Of course, I have to find work. If I didn't, I'd still be offline. Maybe forever. (Only kidding, ladies, I'd still be posting those risque photos of my schlong at... jeez, you wouldn't believe it, I've mislaid the address.) BTW, anyone who wants to employ an extremely good editor, the email addy is top left. Reasonable rates, etc etc. (I'd even work for the haddad. He claims he has a business. Mates' rates for him, innit.)

The interwebnet is like smack. Except you don't ever get a rush, just mild amusement the first time you make someone dance over a hot flame. But it's equally as addictive. I've stolen many hours of various employers' time feeding the monkey. I've kidded myself that I really need to know about people's lives on the other side of the world, that I'm not just nosing around in others' laundry, which they have foolishly hung out in public. Or, which is worse, spending hours teasing overexcitable young men into almost sexual excitement as they try to get the better of you in verbal jousting for which they are pitifully ill equipped.

Often you feel you'd be better off reading a book. (Yes, I know, the world's literature is there to be found on the web, and so many exciting sites about dinosaur bones -- how could I live without reading yet another rebuttal of some nuthouse creationist bollocks.)

A couple of days back, I took Zenella for a walk around the back of the oval. A yellow butterfly crossed our path. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Winter is coming and it's 26 degrees outside. Zenella cannot stop smiling and dancing. She has her own room and a back yard bigger than our whole flat in Tooting. She doesn't know how dull she'll find the place in 13-14 years and she doesn't need to.

I have my 1300-dollar stereo and my CD collection that I haven't seen in two and a half years. Guess what? I'm smiling and dancing too.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Cysts don't exist

For the scientifically minded, it can be entirely frustrating to talk to the nonscientifically minded, especially when the latter work in what you could think of as a scientific discipline.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, a scan revealed that XX and Naughtyman (Zenella is quite convinced that that is his name, and arguing with Zenella nearly always ends in tears on one side or the other) had choroid plexus cysts. The scans were otherwise normal.

No matter how I tried, I couldn't convince the sonographer when we went today for the follow-up that their both having them was significant. In the protocol she follows, she is directed to do an indepth scan if she turns up the cysts, and if that shows no markers of problems, that's it, case closed, no problem.

"The cysts have gone," said Mrs Zen. "Hooray!"

Not hooray, I said to her. The cysts were not the problem. They nearly always resolve by 26 weeks. I explained to her that it's like having protein in her urine (which she had in the first trimester). It's not a problem in itself but it can indicate serious problems. Just like proteinuria, it doesn't even necessarily mean anything serious, but the serious most often comes with it.

I expect Mrs Zen to struggle with my problems with this. She doesn't have a scientific education and she doesn't care. She didn't really want to know about extremely unlikely problems that the twins might have. Mrs Zen is an optimist the like of which you rarely meet -- a bit of a modern-day Mr Micawber -- and I love her for it. I am not an optimist as such (although I have a positive outlook). I take the fatalistic view that wishes are not actually wings and you fly because you buy a ticket, not because you visualise yourself on the plane.

But aren't sonographers people of science? Doesn't a coincidence strike them when they see it? Maybe it's safer for them not to allow it to. Follow the protocols and the times you fuck it up you'll be able to say, I did what I was directed to. The blame for anything that goes wrong will lie elsewhere than with you. Maybe that's what it is. There's no shortage of people who believe it's the way to work. For me, it means surrendering understanding, or trying to understand. I could never do that.

The twins? They are fine. The scan today, although not as in-depth as I might have wished, showed two healthy fetuses with no visible deformities and strong, well-functioning hearts. I do not know why they were one in ten thousand, but I'm content to believe that I have no more to fear than any other father-to-be.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

A war on whoever

The war on terror proceeds apace. Leading the fight is one of America's "key allies", Uzbekistan, today's Times reports. It says Uzbekistan deals with anyone it suspects (read "accuses") of being an Islamist by simply torturing them to death.

If the murdered, ahem, "terrorist"'s mother should complain, not to worry, she can be locked up too. Mrs Mukhadirova is understood to have stayed away from cups of tea during her stay (the Uzbek gov't claims her son died after being scalded with hot tea during a prison fight).

I know what you're thinking. Uzbekistan has elections. If their leader's so bad, why didn't they vote the bastard out? Well, yes, there were elections. They had a smashing referendum, in which only those voting against the prez needed to bother turning up. It goes without saying that this makes a mockery of a secret ballot.

This, one has to assume, is the sort of democracy America wants to see in the world. After all, it's paying Uzbekistan a lot of aid.Indeed, Bush signed a waiver so that the US could continue to sell the Uzbeks weapons despite their not coming close to meeting human rights criteria.

Surely it's just a one-off? Well no. Take a look at its neighbour Turkmenistan.

And then remind me, why did we go bomb Iraq?

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Hen's teeth and a burning Bush

"... a classic study of chicken embryos showed that chicken bills can be induced to develop teeth, indicating that chickens (and perhaps other modern birds) still retain the genes for making teeth."

This is going to take some explaining for the creationists. (What they actually do is leap on the few disputed transitions, and say, because these are in dispute, the whole thing is wrong -- an extreme confirmational holism that they would never apply to their own thought.)

Why care about this stuff? I don't really know. It seems to me the truth is to be preferred to falsehood, even if the truth is painful. I believe children should not be lied to. I believe that if this is your idea of suitable educational material for children, you don't share those values. I'm not sure why I have those values, but I think they're good.

When more than half of the population of America, the most powerful nation on Earth, believes God created the Earth and everything in it less than 10,000 years ago, I think you have to fear a little for those values. It is doubly to be feared that the Bush administration is, for other reasons, antiscience , with Waxman's actual report here.

Bush or his spokespeople have more than once stated his belief that creationism should be taught, for example:
"On teaching evolution in schools, Bush believes both evolution and creationism are valid educational subjects. "He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught," a spokeswoman said.
Source: Bruce Morton, CNN Aug 27, 1999

In looking up some sceptical stuff on creationism and what have you, I stumbled on Christian Reconstruction. I couldn't help noticing that these whackos manage to interpret turning the other cheek to mean that you shouldn't turn the other cheek. This is another example of what you might call Camel and Needle syndrome, where believers, ahem, interpret the Bible to mean that whatever they do is okay, and what others do should get them stoned.

I laugh, but the fear that Bush is one of these people lingers...

On a lighter note... well, I hope that we're not laughing on the other side of our face in November, when he gets four more years to turn not just the USA but other parts of the world into places where the truth is whatever money can make it.

The other side

Reading this and this confront me with something stunning. There are people who believe "The very existence of God is denied by evolution". Dude, you have to change your god.

When you are faced with a choice between accepting the immutable facts that lie in front of you, what you can see with your own eyes, what can be shown -- if not proved, still shown -- in millions of specifics and denying them all because some guy wrote a book that said otherwise a couple of thousand years ago, only one course is reasonable.

"Christians who believe in an old Earth (billions of years) need to come to grips with the real nature of the god of an old Earth—-it is not the loving God of the Bible."

The Earth *is* billions of years old. Either that is true or your god created a world just so it would look that way.

Of course, all these people do is argue from conclusion backwards (the opposite way to the scientific method, which, although it frames the question with a hypothesis, does not seek solely to confirm what it knows but rather to find out what it doesn't). They believe in a loving God of the Bible, blah de blah, and what they see must conform to that. They have to deny our whole world to do it but it's a small price to be paid, they reckon, to be saved from sin and death.

Sigh. Well, we do have to die. It's an unfortunate but real truth. It would be good to escape it. But someone once said that fearing what cannot be undone is foolishness. Instead of denying life and the infinite, exciting creation that we actually live in -- and what's more, trying to have our schools train our children also to deny it -- we should take a deep breath and plunge in. Time is short. Three score and ten, ish, and so much to learn.

More design stuff

An interesting and complete refutation from Prof Matt Young of Dembski's claim that "specified complexity" implies design. A little bit less heated than Matt Brauer's slamming of Dembski on Panda's Thumb.

What amused me most of all was Young's cheeky suggestion that Dembski might have made it all up to get himself a name. He certainly gets a lot of heat with very little light.

The most hilarious comment, though, just has to be in Kornbelt's review of Dembski's No Free Lunch: "If there is a Designer, of course, He/She/It/They would necessraily be in the "gaps." Where else would He/She/It/They be? "


Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Against monarchy

No liberal can be a monarchist. You'd think that this was a straightforward truism, and yet several of the undeniably liberal nations of Europe have monarchs.

There was a time when it could have been argued that nations -- largely because they existed only as the personal possessions of the bold -- required monarchs. The monarch provided justice -- without which society is impossible -- and leadership in morality and religion that, although distasteful to us now, had an important role in making societies cohesive. Even larger states, such as Rome, could only really function as monarchies. It was the failure to monopolise force that caused the downfall of the Empire, which proves, perhaps, that weak kings are to be deplored. Factions -- classes, even -- when given rein will tear a society apart in pursuit of their goals (which recurrently have been one form of control of the economy or another).

But that time has passed. The problem of control of the economy is resolved in the liberal system if not equitably then at least without the conflict of prior ages. Kings have been reduced in power because they have no part in that resolution. Their role of leadership in morality and religion has diminished too. It can be readily seen that it does not sit well in societies that prize freedom of expression, nor is it compatible with the multicultural ethos that liberalism inspires, where cohesion is no longer thought important.

Without the power, a constitutional monarch only represents inequality. They are a living symbol of the belief that some are better than others. Even those who believe that some might be thought better than others through merit cannot make a case for so considering the Windsors. They are particularly lacking in that quality.

They survive largely because they are a side issue, because the things said about them, that they encourage tourism, that they are representative of a notion of "Britishness" that is worth keeping, that they are role models, that they are of huge entertainment value, are not challenged by anyone serious. Doubtless this is because the answers are so evident: the USA attracts many tourists despite being monarch-bereft; the royals are representative of a notion of "Britishness" that ought to repel right-thinking people and in any case are more representative of an interrelated elite that once fiercely oppressed the peoples of Europe; the idea of role models is far overplayed, and can be demonstrated not to be true simply by witnessing the lack of youngsters' indulging in lives of polo and skiing, or professing a desire to do so; although their antics do entertain, that is scarcely an apt profession for the state to fund (although, indirectly, we fund the likes of Dawn French, who has never shown the least inclination to be entertaining) and is hardly impossible for an elected president or someone who had applied for the job of national jester, say.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Stumblin' Zen

Having been put on to Stumble Upon by a correspondent, I've been finding it a fun surfing tool. I suppose it's a glorified links directory with a spot of randomisation, which is right up my street. I like to be surprised, unless it's by the local police on coke night at Tooting Girls' Preparatory.

This is the kind of thing it's thrown up for me:

New technology. I haven't had time to explore it but it does seem to have plenty to chew on for the tech-minded.

If you are one of those saps who thinks it's cool to buy people souvenir birthday newspapers, you'll probably like this time capsule thinger. It's a bit too American for me but quite sweet in its way.

Now, this just r0xx04z. Design types who aren't too sure what goes with what need this colour-matching app. It has a really fantastic range of palettes to choose from. I don't know what it's actually meant for, but I'm going to be redecorating soon, so I have a use for it.

I never tire of Hubble pix. I am ever willing to be humbled and wowed by the immensity and beauty of the universe we live in. I love the horsehead photos in particular. They look like thunderheads over the southside on a summer afternoon, and yet...

I'm so good at doing nothing, I'm not convinced I need software to do it for me, but NaDa does exactly what it says on the tin and does it well. Probably the only software that can be guaranteed to be bugfree.

Dr Zen loves to cook and Mrs Zen loves to try new things, so recipe sites with something different make appeal. The articles are quite good too, but I could have done with a few more.

Reason Online seems to be the web presence of a rightwingish mag. Plenty of thought-provoking reads though, by the look of it. Political bias is okay in a magazine, so long as it's just the background that comment is sung over, rather than the song itself. This is as true of the left as the right. Each is as prone to foolish exaggeration to make its point. Each has hold of truths, and a few lies, and each feels its truths, and its lies, are incontrovertible. Each is wrong. Having said that, I do like Z. I never tire of Chomsky and I am a fierce admirer of Robert Fisk, who is committed to telling the truth -- yes, as he sees it, but even so -- when all around him are printing the propaganda.

Talking of which, I watched Newsnight the other night. This is pretty rare for me. I have less than little time for news analysis, and less even than that for the smug orthodoxy that the BBC thinks -- mostly rightly -- its audience shares. I was astonished, though, at how frank the bias of the interviewer -- Kirsty Wark, who is much touted as an intelligent commentator -- was when "interviewing" Beverley Hughes, the beleaguered Home Office Minister. Now, for sure Hughes is an idiot of the highest order. Who could forget her attack on a TV programme she had not even watched? But she is not to blame for the immigration "crisis" that is causing the calls for her resignation from the rightwing tabs. Since when did a minister have to know what shenanigans every last middle manager in her team is up to? If no one ever tells her, how can she know? The ugly Tory toad at the centre of the fingerpointers, David Davis, has sat on this that the other accusatory email, dribbling them out into the press to beat up the story. It's just more insidious stirring up of the xenophobia that lurks in the dimmer corners of our nation. The Tories know immigration is a winner for them. They can lie through their teeth and if Labour call them on it, they are "soft" on immigration.

But Wark's interrogation of Hughes was oddly onesided. She didn't let Hughes speak, hardly. She bellowed about this that and the other scam, why didn't Hughes do this, shouldn't she do that? It was very belligerent. She actually made me feel sorry for a Labour minister. It was all quite personal. I suppose it had to be -- there just isn't a real story in it.

Most of the BBC's output these days doesn't match watching paint peel. Nice segue!