Friday, December 28, 2007

Merry Christmas!

No, I'm not dead, but I've been on holiday. Unfortunately, my thesis did not write itself in my absence. Anyway, readers:

To all Christians, a Merry Christmas, and to all non-Christians, I hope you have a lovely holiday.

all best wishes
Political Scientist

Monday, December 10, 2007

Richard Dawkins: I'm a cultural Christian

I had to check the link to make sure my eyes did not deceive me. They did not.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Feline Mystery

I have a physicist's distaste for biology ("Yuck! It's all squidgy!"), but sometimes I wish I knew more to give me insight into those biological problems that impinge on my consciousness:

Nimrod, the Mighty Hunter with whom I share my life and my stipend, simply will not eat Whiskers's nice meaty chunks of rabbit or beef: only chicken will suffice. This is a source of tension between us, as Mr. Whiskers prudently sells his meat chunks in packs containing packets of rabbit, beef and chicken. There are no flies on Mr. Whiskers, although there are on the cat dish should I be foolish enough to put out rabbit. Nimrod will have none of it, and she stares at me reproachfully until I feed her chicken chunks instead. This is not the oddity. After gorging herself on chicken, she will track down, torture and kill field mice. This, too, is not the oddity. Having killed the mice, she chews the heads off. What sort of creature turns her nose up at meaty chunks of beef, but eats mice heads? It defies logic and mocks reason. She doesn't even like the mice heads; about once a week they are vomited up under the kitchen table as a lovely present for me. It is very puzzling.

In the meantime, should anyone be interested in a job lot of Whiskers beef, or indeed rabbit, chunks, perhaps they'd get in touch below. Otherwise, eBay beckons...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Our time is now

"Ugly people strike back" - from BBC news
Buenos Aires is a city of beautiful people where appearances are important.
But not everyone in Buenos Aires is beautiful. Gonzalo Otalora, for instance, is downright ugly, and he is not embarrassed to admit it.
It's not fair, he said. The beautiful people get all the breaks. Beauty is a natural advantage and he wants the good-lookers to be taxed to finance compensation for the ugly people.
We will arise, my people.
The French on British Corruption

Le Monde's take on the corruption scandal:

Concessionnaire Mercedes-Benz dans le Berkshire et à Orange County, en Californie, il avait auparavant participé au financement de deux écoles religieuses pilotes à Sheffield, en 2005, vitrines de la réforme de l'éducation du gouvernement Blair.
I suspect this is the principle point of interest: the religious schools. The slash-and-burn anti-clerical reforms at the end of the nineteenth century have left this as something of a curiosity.

A fairly humdrum article, lifted largely from the Mail on Sunday, is enlivened by this rather splendid comment:

Bah, on sait bien que l'Angleterre n'est pas une démocratie mais un pays d' "alternance" politique Droite / Droite, où le libéralisme économique sauvage règne en maître depuis l'époque de l'Empire quand l'Angleterre dominait économiquement le monde. Le Parti travailliste anglais, c'est surtout le parti qui fait travailler...
Worth remembering every time you read a pious piece about the tabloid press "hatred" of the EU.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Why I am not a Leftist

From the "Letters Page" of the Guardian:

It's right that we reflect on the appalling human-rights record of Sudan. But is not the bear which was to go home with the children not also an opportunity to see ourselves as others do? Our encouragement to our children to anthropomorphise wild animals is a baffling feature of our culture. The children's sections of bookshops offer little more than a choice between stories of white children or talking animals. Where does it all lead? Urban pets, Animal Liberation and more spending on pet food than the world's poor have to feed themselves. Many Muslims find our relationships with dogs particularly distasteful, not least in loving them for their companionship. I suppose we must have been doing it since we started breeding them in our post-glacial caves. No wonder we are muddled enough to think calling a stuffed bear Muhammad is OK on the grounds that so many Muslims name their sons after him.
Tom Snow
I hope this is a parody. I fear it is not.
And with one bound, she was free.

Finally, some good news:

Teacher Gillian Gibbons is to be released from prison in Sudan after she was jailed for allowing children in her class to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Some more excellent news

Dr Imad Hassan, 45, is a Sudanese doctor and writer with a PhD in comparative religious studies who has lived in Britain since 1991.
He feels that someone from the Sudanese community must speak out against the ruling, and is planning to organise a protest from fellow scholars.
"I feel insulted as a Muslim by the government of Sudan, not by Mrs Gibbons," he told the BBC. "Describing the lovely children's toy with the name of Muhammad is a compliment, it is not an insult.

What a top chap. I wish the media would tell us more about men like this, and less about Abu bloody Hamza.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Murder your wife - on reality TV

They do things differently in Spain.
Via Le Monde:

Ricardo maltraitait Svetlana, et celle-ci l'avait quitté. Pour tenter de la faire revenir à lui, cet Espagnol de 31 ans s'est adressé à une émission de télévision d'Antena 3, "Le journal de Patricia". Sans dire à la jeune femme qu'il s'agissait de son ancien persécuteur, l'animatrice l'avait convaincue de venir sur le plateau au motif qu'un "proche" voulait lui faire une surpise. La jeune Russe s'était imaginé qu'il s'agissait d'un membre de sa famille demeuré en Russie. Placée face à son agresseur, la surprise a été de taille. Devant les caméras, son ancien compagnon lui a demandé de l'épouser. Elle a répondu "non".

Read the whole thing, and weep.<br>Ricardo beat Svetlana, and she left him. A judge sentenced him to 11 months in the slammer, and forbid him access to Sveltana for 2 years. Undaunted, Ricardo contacted the reality TV show "Patricia's Diary", and asked them to set up Sveltana with him as a "close friend" she wasn't expecting; in his sick way, he wasn't wrong. Brought face to face with his victim, he asked her to marry him; she said no.

What happened next?

Quatre jours plus tard, il l'a égorgée.

Four days later, he cut her throat.

I've often wondered what precautions Reality TV types take against stalkers enlisting them: clearly none. But when a spokesman was asked for a statement:

La société de production de l'émission, Boomerang TV, a expliqué pourquoi, à ses yeux, les organisateurs de ce programme n'ont aucune part de responsabilité dans cet assassinat, dans la mesure où ils ne savaient rien de cette affaire de maltraitance.

Un responsable d'Antena 3, a assuré que "tous les moyens de contrôle permis par la loi avaient été utilisés" avant d'organiser la rencontre surprise entre Ricardo et Svetlana et a jugé "injuste d'établir une relation de cause à effet entre l'émission et cette mort".

Translation: "nothing to do with us, guv".

PS: Perusing Le Monde, I note that word of the Oxford Union's "David Irving and Nick Griffin" show has reached Paris.
I'm a bit confused: they claim "Le Balliol College abritera un débat sur les limites de la liberté d’expression. ". Why has poor bloody Balliol been dragged into it? I thought it was the Oxford Union [Society] that was organising the circus. Perhaps somethings been lost in translation.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lions, Donkeys and Myths

[As the "Saudi post" is still congealing, I'll tell you something about the first world war, instead]

The first world war is one of those curious subjects where there is an almost complete disconnect between popular knowledge and scholarship.
Although WW1 revisionism has been gaining ground academically since the late 60's, popular opinion owes more to Blackadder than to serious history.I only studied history to GCSE, but the version we were fed at school consisted of sadistic generals throwing brave young men to their deaths, in a battle which neither politicians nor generals understood. As Corrigan[1] says of “Oh, What a lovely war”, this is “about as historically useful as The Wind in the Willows”.

There has been a fascinating and timely series of posts over at the Political Umpire's Cricket and Civilisation, which take on many of the myths, and rebuts them convincingly.

The only thing I'd disagree with is an aspect on Haig, where the author states that "The British Legion...was founded by Field Marshall Haig". A lot of work has been done on this by Barr and Sheffield [2], some of which I summarise below.
Although Haig was an important figure in the organisation of the series of Unity Conferences (lasting a year!) that led to the 1921 unification of the four main ex-servicemen organisation into the British Legion [3], he played no role in the conferences themselves.
Indeed, Haig paid fulsome tribute to those who spend so long stating that in the future “full credit will be given to the leaders of those earlier organisations who had the wisdom, foresight and true patriotism to sink all personal aims and differences that the Legion might be established”[4]. Further, Wootton says “The Legion has no founder, only founders. It is a monument to a number of men, not one”[5]. The longstanding dispute between the two views, that the foundation of the Legion demonstrated Haig’s humanity[6] or Haig founded the British legion to rehabilitate his image [7], are both rendered moot as “Haig was not the founder of the British legion” [8].

Two superb books on the new histories of WW1 are "Mud, Blood and Poppycock" [1] and "The Smoke and the Fire" [9]. The latter is by John Terraine, who kicked off a lot of the WW1 revisionism in 1960 with his reappraisal of the battle of Mons.
"Haig" [2] is necessarily more specialist, but combines scholarship with beautifully readable prose.

[1]Gordon Corrigan, “Mud, Blood, and Poppycock”2003 p14

[2]Niall Barr and Gary Sheffield “Douglas Haig, the Common Soldier and the British Legion” in “Haig: a reappraisal 70 years on”, ed. Brian Bond and Nigel Cave: p228-230

[3] John Terraine, “Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier” 1963, p484

[4]The Haig Papers are to be found at the National Library of Scotland. The speech, Galashiels 1927, is reference no. 235c but is cited in [2]

[5] Graham Wootton “The Official History of the British Legion” 1956 p107

[6] John Terraine, “Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier” 1963, p484

[7] Norman Dixon, “On the psychology of Military Incompetence” 1976 p387

[8] Niall Barr and Gary Sheffield “Douglas Haig, the Common Soldier and the British Legion” in “Haig: a reappraisal 70 years on”, ed. Brian Bond and Nigel Cave: p229

[9] John Terraine, “The Smoke and the Fire” 1980

Monday, November 19, 2007

Snow White and the seventy-two dwarves

“Everybody knows” that male suicide bombers ascend to heaven to enjoy the charms of 72 virgins. This raises a number of theological questions – are these virgins real, albeit deceased, women? Is this reward for a life of virtue, or punishment for a life of vice? What do their mothers think? What do their suicide bombers’ mothers think? What other religion conceives heaven as a bawdy house? - but none so pressing as: What do women suicide bombers get out of the deal?

As Archbishop Cranmer puts it: “But what do female suicide bombers hope for?...[is it] an eternity of lesbian bonding”? Indeed not: there is no eternity of Sapphic abandon in the Heavenly Fleshpots. Not for these girls. Instead, women suicide bombers get…

“…served by dwarves”

Speaking to an Arab affairs expert on the reports that Islamic Jihad is threatening to send scores of women suicide bombers to blow themselves up near IDF troops if Israel starts an operation on the ground in Gaza, she enquired what awaited such women in heaven, the equivalent of the notorious 72 virgins ready to serve the male shahids. The answer: dwarves who will serve them. Even in jihadi heaven the women are discriminated against, it seems.

Oh dear, I now have even more questions. Are these real dwarves? What do their mothers think?What does “served” mean? Is it a euphemism, or is it light house work? Orgies of depraved carnality, or a cup of hot cocoa and bedtime stories? Bedtime stories, or “bedtime stories”? Is it wrong that the words “served by dwarves” keeping repeating in my head in the voice of Mr. Humphries?

[Story from an interview on IDF radio, quoted in the JPost]

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The UK approach to rape

Via the comments, PJ from the invaluble pajamasinbananas blog rightly reminds me that everything isn't sweetness and light in the west, either:

Saudi Arabia is an absolute discrace, but this sort of treatment of women can even be seen to a lesser extent in the West: 'PHILADELPHIA — In a rare rebuke, a bar association has criticized a judge for refusing to uphold sexual assault charges against a man who allegedly let friends rape a prostitute he had hired. The judge said she considered the case "theft of services."

It’s terrifying – we’ve got our own Teresa Carr Deni in the form of Judge James Pickles. Whether telling rape survivors that they should have “closed their legs”, or that wearing a miniskirt was “asking for it”, he made his contribution to keeping the rape conviction rate down.
To my relief, he has forsaken judging rape survivors, and taken up tabloid journalism – a profession to which his temperament, intellect and opinions are better suited.

However, we still have Starforth Hill – “Judge Ian Starforth Hill came under fire after saying that an eight-year-old girl rape victim was “not entirely an angel” in 1993. He was banned from hearing rape cases”.

Yet the [deleted] is still allowed to hear other sorts of case - what do judges need to do to be sacked?

I’ve now had two goes at right a cool, dispassionate and dark blog post on our chums, the Saudi’s. On both occasions, I had to stop before I got too angry. Hopefully it’ll be ready by next week.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The approach to rape in Saudi Arabia

From the BBC news:

...a gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six-months in jail

"When she appealed, judges doubled her sentence, saying she had been trying to use the media to influence them."
"The rapists' sentences were also doubled by the court."

That's something...

"[They were]
sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years.

...or not.

Word fail me tonight.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All I want for Christmas... a trebuchet that can fling flaming pianos for half a mile!

And, of cource, a copious supply of pianos to set aflame and fling half a mile.

[via John Derbyshire at The Corner]

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Curious Case of Dr. Watson and the Coincidental Controversies

I appreciate that I'm a little late to the lynching, but I thought I'd share some intriguing coincidences regarding the publication of Professor Watson's' books and his making controversial remarks:

2003: James Watson causes outrage with remarks about "curing" stupid people and making "all girls pretty"
2003: James Watson publishes DNA: The Secret of Life with Andrew Berry

2007: James Watson causes outrage with remarks about race and intelligence
2007: James Watson publishes Avoid Boring People

Correlation does not imply causality, but it's almost as if there were something about having a new book out that led to an author making wild, outrageous statements generating page and page of free publicity. How curious.

Some extremely good sense from Julian Baggini at the Guardian. He distinguishes between what may be a legitimate scientific hypothesis, and what is just racist wibble.

[These examples are drawn from the wikipedia article on James Watson.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Silence of the Clams

via the BBC News:

A clam dredged up off the coast of Iceland is thought to have been the longest-lived animal discovered. Scientists said the mollusk, an ocean quahog clam, was aged between 405 and 410 years and could offer insights into the secrets of longevity...The clam, nicknamed Ming after the Chinese dynasty in power when it was born, was in its infancy when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne and Shakespeare was writing plays such as Othello and Hamlet.
Bangor's press release here, BBC report here

Perhaps it will be asked to lead the Liberal Democrats. It can scarcely be worse than Lembit Opik.
Or is that a bit Cheeky?