The Shaikh would not approve!

The Shaikh would not approve!

I discovered tonight that my blog has come to the attention of a Muslim scholar in the UK, in a piece he wrote about the UK census. Like me, this scholar noted the obssessive focus of the UK press on the growth of Islam, rather than the explosion of atheism[1]. Unlike me, the writer of this piece didn’t comment on the simultaneous release of gay marriage laws that privilege the bigotry of the mainstream churches. I wonder why?

Anyway, in previous posts here I have presented the use of Tolkien by fascists as evidence in favour of my thesis that his work is racist. So it’s only fair that I hoist myself on my own petard, and have a look at what kind of people hold my work in high esteem[2]. If we can find even one work by this website that supports the veil, then surely I’m anti bikini? Right?

Fortunately, the Islam21c website gives a convenient collection of all the works of the scholar in question, Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, so we can read his opinions in full, and an interesting read they are. Essentially they read like your standard form of leftist religiosity, with perhaps a touch more homophobia and prostration than one might see of a Catholic liberation theologist, but generally in the same vein – they’re the sort of thing that a mainstream leftist christian in America would probably approve of (minus the “peace be upon him”s) or that a conservative Australian catholic unionist (or even Tony Abbott) could get behind. They also have a particular theme that you won’t find in the works of a “mainstream” religious activist in the UK – how to deal with being a Muslim in Britain. And in this regard they don’t read particularly differently to the opinions of a practical Marxist or fascist, in that they attempt to provide guidelines for how to conduct oneself in a world that one simultaneously appreciates and enjoys, but finds morally bankrupt and which (to a greater or lesser extent depending on one’s political and religious leanings) rejects you or your kind. Thus we find advice on whether or not to vote (do so, but do so from a framework of minimizing evil, and aim to follow the advice of Muslim scholars about which party to vote for); advice about how to respond to the killing of bin Laden (which, funnily enough, contains no advice; but condemns al Qaeda while blaming everything on America); an opinion on the London riots (morally reprehensible, but driven by racism and the exclusion of the poor from education[4]); and recommendations about banking practice (if you hold views which require a boycott, as do e.g. vegetarians or environmentalists, then you need people to gather information and present their opinion of whether particular products are valid to use[3]). Every gold card should have a fatwa!

More interesting is the site’s attempts to describe the nature of the hijab (voluntary, but recommended to all), the issue of immodest hijabs (yes, they exist!) and the problems inherent in treating the hijab as a symbol of identity rather than an act of worship (I actually thought these readings would put many a post-structuralist feminist to shame); and most interestingly, its ongoing series of posts on what it means to be British in an Islamic context, built around a debate with another Islamic scholar about the role of music (very appropriate, given the strength of British culture in the production of music). Would that mainstream journalists in the UK could put as much thought into these issues as this obscure website has done! In this context I thought the open letter to David Cameron was particularly impressive.

Although I think I can say I disagree with almost everything on this site, I think I understand the fundamental struggle it describes: to try to live according to a strict set of moral precepts in a world that doesn’t agree with them, or that agrees with them in principle but doesn’t support them practically. You can see this from christian fundamentalists, vegans, pacifists and some kinds of Marxists and libertarians, and the personal struggles their websites describe are all the same. Unlike some christians in the west, though, this site is more honest: it directly blames the Japanese tsunami on a failure to embrace the correct God – a view this tired atheist would have once got angry about, but now appreciates for its cruel honesty. The more times that religious people say things like this, the more potential followers they will lose, because in statements like this they reveal the fundamental cruelty of the god they claim loves them, and the responsibility of all right thinking people everywhere to oppose those gods if they were real. Anyone who submits to a god that kills 10,000 people even though they have never had a chance to convert to his “love” is lacking some fundamental understanding of what compassion is. Or is being very bloody-minded. Either way, it’s better that these things are stated openly than clothed in mealy-mouthed excuses about “the problem of evil.”

Anyway, the post-colonial critique of mainstream analyses of Islam was good, as was the debate about what it means to be British, and the subjugation of nationalism to the greater struggle – very much in keeping with the major streams of international socialist thought. Shame about the hocus-pocus, but you can’t have everything – but who cares when you can hoist faustusnotes on his own petard, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that my website is opposed to bikinis!? And, no doubt, objectively pro-terrorist …

fn1: incidentally, my spell-checker notes that “Islam” requires a capital “I” whereas “atheism” does not need a capital. Typing here, I also note that “Christianity” requires a capital “C”. I think this is bullshit. I think in all future posts, I will capitalize the “A” in “Atheism.”

fn2: my claiming that this islam21c blog holds me in high esteem might be stretching it a bit, but we don’t get a great many hits around here, so please go easy on me.

fn3: In Australia, vegans generally told each other that Toohey’s Red and Coopers were safe beers to drink

fn4: but your average rioter probably doesn’t want to assume this means they receive any sympathy – if our friendly shaikh had his way, they’d be getting a hand amputated!

Today’s Guardian reports on an exchange of letters between Salman Rushdie and John le Carre, from 1997, in which they disagree vehemently about the limits of free speech. At this point in his career Rushdie was in hiding from Islamic fundamentalists, and le Carre was in trouble for criticizing Israel – which of course put him in line for claims of anti-semitism, about which he was most outraged. Unfortunately, 10 years earlier he had apparently claimed that “Nobody has a god-given right to insult a great religion,” and Rushdie was apparently incensed that le Carre should suddenly be demanding victim status after the religious “thought police” turned on him.

The subsequent exchange – which the Guardian now reports both sides have declared they regret – is a hilarious example of how debates on freedom of expression were conducted before the existence of blogs. Apparently, they are conducted viciously through the medium of newspapers. But the letters themselves read like something straight out of a modern blog flame war – further proof, if any were needed, that the medium has not really changed the message or its tone.

Some of these exchanges are quite pretty, though. le Carre goes in heavy with his concerns about the girl in the mail room getting her hands blown off, and demands a less colonialist approach to the topic of freedom of expression (though thankfully he doesn’t apply this to Rushdie himself, just his admirers). Less colonialist? Since when is it colonialist to criticize the Iranian regime for putting a price on a writer’s head? Rushdie may be a self-canoniser, but a threat to the Iranian regime he is not. Were he some lunatic militarist with actual political power, pushing for the reoccupation or isolation of Iran, le Carre might have a point – but a religious critic?

In reply, Rushdie thanks le Carre for “refreshing our memories as to what a pompous ass he is” and adds that “‘ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skilfully fitted on his own head.” Isn’t it just like reading an exchange on one of the better major bloggers’ sites, when they have one of their blog wars? Only all of it in the Guardian letter’s page.

I haven’t read Rushdie’s work, but I find it hard not to take his side on the matter. I’ve no doubt that le Carre’s experience of drawing the ire of the Jewish “thought police,” as Rushdie describes them, was much less frightening than Rushdie’s, but one would have hoped it would have given him a hint as to how hard it might be to be in the firing line, whether figuratively or literally. Whether you think his attack on Islam was warranted or not, and whether you think it deserves the ire of Muslims, the fatwa was an outrageous response and even if purely symbolic is still a Very Bad Thing. I would have thought one could have a nuanced debate about colonialism, revolutionary defensiveness, and the responsibilities of western authors, without ignoring the egregious nature of the response, or belittling Rushdie’s genuine difficulties after the fatwa was declared. And if I were Rushdie, I’d certainly be mighty wrathful with writers who failed to defend my rights.

All of which makes for some entertaining reading, 15 years after the fact, and reminds us that modern blogwars do not necessarily have a lower tone than public debate showed before the invention of this anonymous medium. I guess it just significantly increases the amount that gets said (and thus, by application of basic theorems, the number of debates that get Godwinned). In the case of your average blogger, this is probably not a net positive for the world – but had Rushdie and le Carre been blogging between 1985 and 2000, it would have been quite fascinating, I’m sure.

If only the internet had been invented sooner, we could have been given the pleasure of blogposts by such luminaries as Orwell, Rushdie, Abbie Hoffman … imagine the colour and light such blogs would bring to the medium. Imagine if Steinbeck had a blog during the Great Depression, or Dr. Seuss in the lead up to world war 2. I doubt it would have changed anything, but it would certainly have been great reading…

Do any of these dickheads look virtual to you?

A couple of days ago Australia’s prime minister (PM) Julia Gillard found herself in the unprecedented position of having to host an extended news conference to hose down allegations of corruption from 17 years ago. A slightly abridged version of the news conference is available here, and it’s a barn-storming performance by Ms. Gillard that shows some of her finer qualities. My reader(s) from countries with a more timid political climate might like to feast their eyes on it as an example of how politicians should handle the idiots from the press.

This post isn’t about the press conference or Gillard’s finer qualities, but rather about the issue she was asked to address late in the press conference about how to handle what she (scornfully) describes as the “Americanization” of debate with its “lunar right, tea party fringe” and the role of new media in promoting a vitriolic atmosphere of political debate. The press conference itself is supposedly an example of how the internet has changed politics, since many of the allegations about corruption that Gillard has been forced to address have only been kept alive on the internet, by a couple of (apparently) misogynist and lunatic websites. A common question that consumes a lot of the (admittedly limited) processing power of the average journalist’s brain is whether the rise of internet communications and “new” media is corrupting political debate, and what journalists can and should do about it: near the end of the press conference Gillard summarizes this question more eloquently than any journalist could, and calmly points out to them what they should be doing about it – she doesn’t point out that her need to hold the press conference at all is an implicit proof that journalism has failed to rise to the task.

At the same time the Observer is running another of the seemingly endless run of journalistic pleadings about whether the blogosphere is responsible for the modern atmosphere of political hysteria. It cites some of the now famous research that claims the blogosphere fragments rather than facilitates political debate, and calls on some (imo) fairly trite stereotypes of the internet generation as self-serving and individualistic. But is blogging, and internet debate more widely, really the cause of this modern hysteria? Can journalists really stand above the fray and pretend to be offering a better, more reasoned or more “balanced” form of public debate? Or is this all smoke-and-mirrors aimed at hiding journalism’s corruption, and subsequent loss of control of the space of cultural and political discourse?

Returning to Gillard’s press conference, I can’t say I’m convinced that the problems she faces would just go away if a couple of vile and sexist websites were to disappear, and judging by her tone when she deals with a journalist called “Sid” from the Australian newspaper, she doesn’t think so either. Although the allegations she was confronting have been floating around for years, they were largely unknown to the wider public until 2007 – when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. And then 2010 – when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. And then last weekend, when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. Are we seeing a pattern here? On every occasion that it has chosen to move these allegations from the fringe blogosphere into public debate, the Australian has had to apologize and publish a retraction, and in 2010 it sacked the journalist who wrote the story. This newspaper – Australia’s only national newspaper – is on record as having declared a plan to destroy Australia’s environmental party, The Greens; its editor in 2003, Paul Kelly, traveled the country openly drumming up support for the Iraq war and calling anyone who opposed it cowards. The Australian is owned by News International – on the same weekend as the Observer was blathering about standards on the blogosphere, News International’s the Sun was publishing pictures of Prince Harry’s naked arse, presumably in the interests of free speech. This is the same News International that probably used illegal means to obtain and then broadcast a recording of Prince Charles telling his girlfriend he wished he was her tampon; the same News International that hacked a dead girl’s cellphone and deleted some messages, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive. The same News International – an American company, incidentally, run by an Australian – that probably also hacked the phone of the UK prime minister, and the families of a couple of soldiers who died in Iraq.

So is Gillard’s problem really with the blogosphere alone? As she observes in the press conference, in a world with more and more information people will tend to put more weight on the opinions of trustworthy mainstream sources; but when these mainstream sources simply regurgitate the opinions of “the nutjobs and misogynists on the internet” then the issue becomes bigger than just the opinions of some lonely wanker with a PC – the bigger issue is the judgment and respectability of the employees of a newspaper company that thinks hacking dead girls’ cellphones is a justifiable act. The reality is that journalists are cheap and easily bought, and they were running down the respectability of their own profession long before the internet made it possible for lonely misogynists to pile on.

But looking a little wider, beyond the issue of what journalists choose to confer legitimacy on, is the increasing nastiness of public debate really the fault of arseholes on the internet at all? The picture at the top of this page is from a rally against Australia’s carbon price. The poster at the back refers to Ms. Gillard, and is suggesting in quite a vile and sexist way that she is the sexual toy of the leader of Australia’s environmentalist party, Bob Brown. The man standing under that banner at the front, with the microphone, telling the demonstrators he agrees with them, is Tony Abbott, the leader of Australia’s opposition liberal party and Australia’s potential future PM. The woman next to him is Bronwyn Bishop, a senior and respected politician from that same party. One might call it merely an error of judgment, but it’s hard to say that they’re doing much to keep debate above board and polite when they choose these kinds of banners as their backdrop. Where are the bloggers in this picture? It wasn’t a lonely wierdo on the internet who called a feminist activist in America a “slut” for wanting contraception to be covered by health insurance – that was Rush Limbaugh, a major media figure. It was a Republican who decided to invoke the 10th Century fiction of “legitimate rape” in defending his anti-choice views; it was a politician, not a blogger, who put rifle cross hairs over pictures of American democrats (or was it their offices?); and there are more than a few birthers in the Republican party (indeed, in congress).

So is the problem really with the blogosphere and the increasing fragmentation of political debate on the internet, or is that a symptom of a wider unhinging, that is being driven by powerful forces in politics and the media? Indeed, even though he’s completely wrong and definitely not honest or well-meaning, there’s not really anything wrong with what Anthony Watts does, in principle, in his little denialist fantasy land. There’s also lots of debate and engagement between the two sides of the AGW “debate” on the internet – if anything, the question is whether there should be less, not more, given how wrong and mendacious the denialists can be. And the role of the media here, too, is questionable since the average journalist’s understanding of the concept of “balance” doesn’t extend past “giving a nutjob a voice on national tv.” The notion that balance is best obtained through calm and rational presentation of facts and getting it right doesn’t seem to have stuck with modern journalists, who constantly trot the likes of “Lord” Monkton out to defend the indefensible – and in fact as the science gets more settled and the denialist population shrinks to a smaller and crazier rump, the journalist notion of “balance” just leads to crazier and crazier people being put on national tv to represent the “opposing view.” Again, is this the blogosphere’s fault? Sure some of those bloggers love to feed the fires, but everyone is craving the legitimacy of the mainstream public eye, and it’s journalists who offer that legitimacy, not blogs with too many colours and 30% of the words in block letters. If AGW was a fiction conjured up by powerful voices in the mainstream, then Watts’s work would be honourable rather than misguided, and he would be justified in both using harsh language, and allowing insulting and rude language on the part of his commenters. And even though some of the stuff he does there – particularly the shenanigans with publishing private correspondence that just happens to be embarrassing – is scummy and low and something he should be ashamed of, that kind of stuff is par for the course with national media and has been for a very long time.

I guess there’s a fine line between being an arsehole and being a hero – a lot of politicians seem not to like the Watergate journalists, or Assange, and I guess from their perspective the work of these people is more than just an inconvenience. But there’s more than enough arseholes in politics and the media, and they’ve been around long enough and doing dirty enough work, that one hardly needs to look to the internet for the cause of the increasingly strident and aggressive nature of modern political debate. The Palins and Limbaughs and Abbotts and Murdochs of the world have pretty much cornered the market on being nasty in public, and given how often journalists offer them the fig-leaf of legitimacy through unquestioning regurgitation of their crap, acceptance of the “legitimate questions” they raise, or straight-out editorializing in their favour, I think it’s fair to say that when journalists start pointing the finger at new media they’re either trying to shift the blame, or warn each other that their time is up. They certainly aren’t trying to improve the quality of public debate, because they and their political masters managed to debase that years ago.

The Washington Post (which I’ve started reading since I was interviewed for it) has a four page feature on storage unit auctions out today. It’s obviously written from a light-hearted perspective, overlaid with a touch of cynicism and fatalism about consumer culture and the current economic climate, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was reading a kind of apocalyptic vision, of small bands of survivors roaming the wilderness eking an existence from the contents of abandoned storage units. The article builds that atmosphere a little, by reminding us occasionally of America’s straitened situation, and also with cute exaggerations like this:

What Americans pay to store their junk is about equal to the gross domestic product of the west African nation of Burkina Faso. The industry added a billion square feet of storage space between 1998 and 2005, with 8,694 facilities opening between ’04 and ’05 alone.

Such data, extrapolated imaginatively, herald a future dystopia wherein self-storage space outnumbers all else, and America is little more than row after row of quiet closed units containing saggy mattresses, rusty ironing boards and boxy computer printers from the 20th century.

The cast of characters in the roaming auction also sounds like something from apocalpyse fiction – the guy whose retirement nest egg is composed entirely of gold jewellery recovered from storage auctions, and this guy, Tony Harris, who tells the reporter that

in the early ’70s, he was indicted with six other Catholic radicals (dubbed “The Harrisburg Seven” by the media) for allegedly plotting to kidnap then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger in order to force a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam War.

Off the set of Born on the Fourth of July and onto the set of Storage Wars … how’s that for an apocalypse-scale fall from grace?

Even the illustration accompanying the article has a feeling of a group of adventurers uncovering a loot pile – if you replaced the torches with lanterns and the wheel in the foreground with a pile of gold, you’d have an illustration from a range of classic gaming manuals. It’s a weird post-modern adventure game of free-booting, exploration and tramp trading in a world of abandoned treasure houses, mostly filled with junk …

It’s come to my attention recently that I’ve never actually written a comments policy, or stated what my privacy policy is on this blog. Even though very few people visit this tiny part of the internet, it may surprise both of you to discover that I have actually had to enact an element of my privacy policy before, and this makes me think that I probably ought to specify what it is for those of you who comment here. So here’s my privacy policy in (more than) three easy dot points:

  1. I don’t demand real names or identification of any kind, though you’re welcome to use your real name and of course I encourage interesting screen names. Furthermore, I don’t demand that you provide a valid email address (one of my friends posts here with a pathetically obvious fake email address, that he should be ashamed of)
  2. I will never reveal your identity publicly on the blog or privately, and no matter how much I disagree with your loathsome political views (let’s face it, you’re all worms) I won’t be cashing them in to your boss/wife/mistress/dog, because that kind of behavior is complete shit. If some neo-nazi gobshite turns up on my blog and gives the email address “[insert obviously real name]”, that gobshite can rest assured that I won’t be telling the cops that they’re a nazi gobshite (though admittedly, giving that email address would be profoundly stupid – but if you weren’t profoundly stupid, you wouldn’t be a neo-nazi gobshite, would you?]
  3. I’m a curious and kind of voyeuristic guy, so I might do a whois inquiry or google you or something, but I won’t reveal that information to others on the blog or privately. Furthermore, I discourage commenters from referring to people using details that haven’t been revealed online. If you know that commenter neonazigobshite is a woman because you shagged her at the last End Apathy! gig (you poor bastard!), that doesn’t mean you should reveal her gender here if she is trying to keep it ambiguous (some chicks do that). I’m also not going to get pissed with anyone for obvious stuff-ups in this regard (let’s face it, you guys are pretty stupid)
  4. I see search terms that link to my blog, and if I find that someone is trying to identify you on google, or they have your identity and are trying to find out something about e.g. your political opinions or your online activity, I will do my best to tell you (I did this for someone once before)
  5. If you are looking for a job/partner/friend/drinking buddy and you are worried about them googling you and finding out that you wrote something stupid on my blog (because, let’s face it, you did), then contact me and I will do my best to delete it and/or everything you ever wrote (your choice). I’m pretty lazy, though, so if you wrote a lot your chances of scoring a clean record are pretty low, plus there’s the wayback machine (but anyone who is small-minded enough to google you is probably not clued up to that stuff). Also note in this regard that if I discover someone hunting you out on google and I’m worried that what you’ve said here might endanger your job chances, I may unilaterally delete you from the internet. You can thank me later!
  6. None of these considerations apply if you reveal that you have committed serious crimes, especially involving children. I’m not a priest!

Of course, a lot of this stuff is irrelevant because if you say anything really horrible I’ll just apply my comments policy, which is essentially: you’re free to say whatever you like, but I’m going to delete anything really nasty. I think if you review the comment threads on my Tolkien and Nazism or Tolkien and Fascism stuff you’ll see I’m pretty relaxed in my definition of “nasty.” I’ve never deleted a comment here before, but I’m sure one day I’ll have to.

I think it should be fairly obvious that this comments policy means I’m in favour of internet anonymity. I’m aware that this anonymity encourages rudeness but I have also seen a few situations where people online got into a lot of real life trouble – including losing jobs – because of the shitty behavior of other commenters and/or blog owners, and I don’t think that encourages decent debate (plus it’s really not very nice is it?). I don’t hide my identity, but I don’t flaunt it either, and that’s because I like to use this blog for exploratory or speculative thinking about topics related to my work, that I can’t do at work. I don’t want people thinking that what I say here represents either my fully-formed professional ideas (which are generally quite conservative) or my employer’s opinion of the same topics, and I also don’t want to make any claims to authority in what I present here. I think it’s better if people view me in terms of my nickname and treat my comments here with all the seriousness the nickname deserves (i.e. none). Also, a lot of what I talk about here blends sci-fi and politics and real life, and it’s easy for people googling someone to confuse that kind of speculative thinking with real opinions. I don’t want that to happen to me or you, so I’m happy to preserve your anonymity.

I know a lot of people on the internet think that anonymity is not one of its better qualities, but I disagree. I think debate can be enhanced by genuine anonymity, because people can say what they think without fear of work/loved ones/dogs discovering that they’re secretly an idiot. In general it hasn’t degraded the quality of debate here, there’s very little rudeness here and everything seems to be working out, but I certainly think that some of my commenters would be less inclined to, shall we say, engage in robust disagreement with me (you wankers) if they had to put their real names on the comments. So I’m going to preserve your anonymity. Although if the CIA come calling I’ll sell you down the river in a second – no one’s waterboarding me!

Oh, and on that note, I’m sure there are hundreds of people out there with great things to contribute who’ve been scared to on account of not knowing my privacy policy. So please, lurkers, delurk now! You are guaranteed anonymity! But not freedom from ridicule…

The Olympic athletics are mostly done and dusted, and Usain Bolt, having won 100m and 200m gold, has proclaimed himself “the greatest athlete to live.” This status can’t have been earned through sheer numerical power, since on numbers alone Bolt would be well down the medal list – five gold medals at two Olympics is nothing special and certainly can’t eclipse Carl Lewis’s nine gold over four olympics. It can’t be the act of retaining a title over two successive olympics, since Ian Thorpe did that, and in any case it’s not really comparable with sports like Judo where one can only compete in one weight division at one Olympics. By the measure of defending golds in at least one event for which one is eligible to compete, Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho are far superior – they have defended gold at three olympics and seven and nine world championships respectively, and Kaori Icho has not lost for 150 or more matches. It can’t be through achieving perfection in one’s sport, since Nadia Comaneci did that in 1976 when she scored a perfect 10 (in fact she won seven 10s in total in that olympics). Ms. Comaneci also went on to win five golds, defend her beam performance at the next olympics, is credited with her own special moves, and is the only person ever to receive the Olympic Order twice). It can’t be for being the youngest person to break a record – again, Nadia Comaneci did that and, according to her wikipedia entry, it’s now impossible to legally break that record. Bolt didn’t break any records until he was 21.

I guess gymnastics just isn’t that special. That might explain why Japanese TV insisted on showing the 100m final even though no Japanese person was competing – imagine how little time they would have to showcase Japanese athletes if they had to broadcast the final of every event! In fact they don’t, so it must be that the 100m and 200m are really special.

This confuses me. I don’t understand what’s special about sprinting. It’s obviously impressive and important – like all athletics – but does it compare with any of the other major events in the Olympics? Compare it with synchronized swimming, for example, which is a genuinely impressive sport in which great talent is combined with challenging physical technique as well as artistic merit. Could Usain Bolt sprint in perfect lockstep with the rest of his Jamaican team? Could he do push-ups while holding his breath? Could he hoist one of his other team members into the air for a perfect backflip with a peg on his nose after doing hold-your-breath push-ups for 30 seconds? Come to think of it, could he even complete a 100m race while maintaining a perfectly fixed smile? Synchronized swimming often gets a bum rap, but if you look past the rigid smiles and scary make up, it’s actually a sport that requires amazing talent, focus and attention to detail, and the women who do it obviously have impressive backgrounds in swimming, ballet and gymnastics.

So what is so special about sprinting? Putting aside for the moment the fact that all of these sports are a complete waste of time and space, is there anything about sprinting that makes it different to weight-lifting, hammer-throwing or the marathon? Do you have to do it from childhood, like gymnastics? Does it require skills from multiple disciplines, like rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming? Is there a risk of death if you do it wrong, as in diving, gymnastics or horse-riding? Does it require a special and intense team spirit to complete even the simplest of moves, like volleyball?

I think the Daily Mash puts Bolt’s achievement into a little more historical perspective:

Helen Archer, from Stevenage, added: “Usain Bolt just ‘practices’ running every day and, one assumes, eats a lot of macaroni and stays off the tabs.

“Perhaps the Pope should commission a new ceiling from him. Let’s see what that does to his ego.

“Once he’s finished, perhaps he could point at it in his trademark style.”

I think that puts Bolt’s “legend” status into a little perspective. Imagine if Einstein, receiving his Nobel prize in 1921, had said “I’m the greatest scientist to live.” Even rock stars tend to eschew this kind of stupidity. Freddie Mercury just said “I always knew I was a star,” but he never managed to get to the point of observing the obvious truth, that he was the greatest performer ever to live.

It’s probably a reasonable truism to live by, that if what you’re about to say outstrips Freddie Mercury, Oscar Wilde and Mohammed Ali in its arrogance, you shouldn’t say it. I’ll give you that tip for nothing, Usain Bolt. In exchange, could you tell me why I should value sprinting more than synchronized swimming?

You kids get off my lawn!

Over the Easter weekend my blog was the victim of a Jesus-jacking. A blog post I wrote a year ago for Easter, What Kind of Undead was Jesus?, suddenly started attracting huge numbers of hits – from 0 on April 4th to 126 on April 8th and then back down to three (so far) today. All these hits were due to web searches on terms like “Jesus lich,” “Jesus is a lich,” and “Jesus was a lich.” I think it was also posted on facebook, plurk and twitter. This year there seems to be a meme going around about how Jesus was a lich – “happy lich Jesus day” and a hashtag to go with it. Somewhere in that my post got picked up and rebroadcast a little, especially on Facebook. It even made it to that sump of New Atheism, Pharyngula.

Anyway, I want to point out that I thought of this a year ago and I have the stats to prove it.

On a tangential note, what is wrong with you people? Somehow over the holiest weekend in Christendom, approximately 300 people felt the need to do a google search on whether or not Jesus was a lich. Don’t you people have something better to do? Like, I don’t know, go to Church? Or play computer games? Or watch a movie? Or have sex? Or go away on an Easter break? I’m guessing that there are about 1 billion people living in nominally christian societies on this earth, which means that something like 1 person in every 4 million people feels the need to find out whether a figure who is a prophet in two of the world’s biggest religions was a lich by googling it on a public holiday. I’ve been away from christendom for a while now, but surely Easter hasn’t become so boring that you have to google Jesus’s undead status? Get a life people! Or at least keep your google searches for a working day …

Too Lazy for Monster-hunting

I and the Delightful Miss E both have colds this weekend, so we decided to have a lazy weekend in the house, watching monster documentaries. We weren’t quite as lazy as the pictured monster, who couldn’t even be bothered lifting his head through most of the weekend, but about the only time my pulse rose above resting level was when I learnt about the kinds of horrors that ordinary citizens in Madrid have to endure. And my god, were they horrible. It’s nice to sit safe in your home learning about the kinds of troubles that people in the Western Hemisphere face, being reminded of how much more civilized life in Asia is. Although I must say that I sometimes got the impression that the third documentary I watched wasn’t real. Sometimes it just seemed, well, acted. Here is my review of the three documentaries I watched.

Rec: Violent zombie bio-containment in Madrid

Rec is an accidentally-shot documentary about an incident in a Madrid apartment block, filmed a few years ago. The film starts off as a simple TV show, with a presenter and her cameraman planning to spend a night with the Madrid fire brigade filming their activities for a show called While You Were Sleeping. I think they must have changed the name of this show for the documentary because I can’t find any evidence that it’s real, but it is an excellent idea for a TV show so I think people should make this kind of show. Anyway, after a few hours of boredom the team are called out to an incident in an apartment block, where a woman appears to be locked into her apartment, and the documentary crew go with them. When they arrive they are greeted by the apartment residents, who are in the hallway, and two policemen. The “normal incident” turns out to be a monster situation – some kind of zombie in the apartment attacks one of the policemen, and mayhem breaks out. However, before they can do anything to flee the building is surrounded by police and health inspectors and sealed off, and they are warned that any attempt to leave will have “drastic consequences.” They are then required to stay in the apartment block while, one by one, the residents and visitors turn into zombies. The whole thing is recorded by the documentary crew.

This documentary is genuinely one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen, after The Descent – which we all know was just a movie. The people are so ordinary and unprepared: the residents consist of an uptight mother and her daughter, some Chinese migrant textile workers, a seedy older man who thinks he still has it, and an intern from the local hospital. No one has any idea what’s happening until the dead start coming to life, and they all start blaming each other (until they settle on the Chinese as scapegoats, of course). They can’t agree about a plan, refuse to follow the orders of the policeman, and don’t have any community feeling to bind them together in adversity. Meanwhile, they’re being lied to by the police outside and hunted down like animals by a terrible beast inside. The panic builds towards an incredibly tense and terrifying conclusion, and much of the action happens in claustrophobic, tangled spaces, or in the dark or just the light of a single spotlight. It’s one of those situations where everyone needs to understand the basic principles of zombie theory, be ready to apply them, and be ruthless and steadfast in sticking to them. Sadly they don’t do this and every time the group fragments or fails to get it fast enough, someone dies. The editing of the documentary is very well done too so it’s sparse with extraneous details, doesn’t make you feel sick or confused from the jumbling images, and gives you a clear sense of what’s going on. It’s so good it could be a movie, and indeed I did feel like I was watching  a movie as the facts were being unveiled. Unfortunately a few years later an American director made a movie, Quarantine, based on the events in Madrid, and in watching the preview for that movie I got a spoiler showing me how the situation finally is resolved. My advice is not to watch the trailer for Quarantine. Why do people put the ending in the trailer? That’s crazy.

This documentary is hard going but very powerful and educational, and it again reinforces the lessons learnt in The Descent: if you’re up against a countable number of undead/generally grey-skinned opponents, and your resources and strength are limited but you have a couple of good weapons, absolutely the best thing to do is to take a stand in one, strong, defensible position and destroy them as they come at you. Do not attempt to run and hide, do not try to find out more about what is going on than you immediately need to know, do not split up and most of all destroy them before you start to run out of energy, light, or esprit de corps. Especially if you are in a building surrounded by police, so all you need to do is survive until they can work out what to do. And most of all, don’t go creeping around in dark hallways and rooms trying to work out who is still alive and what is going on. The lessons of this movie will help anyone who is faced with a supernatural or viral zombie threat of the kind we all need to prepare for.

Trollhunter: The truth about Norway’s troll control program

Trollhunter is a found-footage documentary, based apparently on 283 minutes of footage that turned up at a Norwegian TV station and was verified and pieced together by its editors. The documentary was filmed by some college students who were originally on the trail of an unlicensed bear hunter, only to discover that he is actually a troll hunter. Initially cold, he finally opens up to them and allows them to follow him in the troll hunt. Apparently Norway has always had trolls, but they are confined to specific territories and if they escape those territories the troll hunter, Hans, is sent to kill them. These trolls aren’t like D&D trolls: they’re up to 100m tall and enormously powerful, and they can smell the blood of a christian. The documentary tells us quite a bit about their biology and habits and so we learn that they aren’t supernatural at all, though they can be killed by exposure to sunlight: they’re just very big, very old predators that have been driven into the wilderness by humans. Unfortunately, the government is keeping their existence and the existence of the troll control program a secret, which might explain why the documentary is based on found footage.

This documentary isn’t terrifying like Rec but it is a fascinating, occasionally violent and disturbing, and very exciting kind of animal documentary, like going in pursuit of 100m tall lions or something. It has a good pace, although they do sometimes spend too much time filming shots of the fjords, and it unveils the truth of the situation in the same way that the filmmakers themselves learnt it, which is an excellent technique for documentaries about monsters: by giving this point-of-view style, the documentary maker encourages the viewer to feel like they have themselves stumbled upon these hidden facts about the supernatural world, and so makes the viewer more likely to believe the truth of the story – though obviously as an avid RPG player, I didn’t need any convincing as to the existence of trolls. I just didn’t realize they were so big! Or so well controlled by the Norwegian government, which is apparently up to its neck in conspiracy and cover-up to prevent panic and chaos. Usually when people talk about the dark secrets behind the Scandinavian success story it’s something about suicide or youth unemployment, but I never realized it was actually troll control. A fascinating insight into how the government handles supernatural problems in a stable, social democratic society and well worth watching.

Diary of the Dead: Badly made Zombie hoax

This “documentary” is really, really hard to believe. First of all, although it’s easy to believe that I could miss news about a single weird situation in an apartment in Madrid, it’s really hard to believe that the kind of chaos this documentary describes could have happened in the USA without my noticing it. For the brief period of the documentary it’s as if the world has ended, though obviously that can’t have happened since, well, I’m sitting here writing this and the person who filmed this documentary openly admits that she was able to edit it and release it to us. I really hate it when documentaries about serious subjects like zombie incidents try to exaggerate the importance of them, like the world has ended or something. The second hint as to the falsity of this documentary is its title, which is clearly a play on the names of the famous zombie movies – I even have a suspicion that Romero had a role in this. The third clue that it’s a hoax is that it appears to be acted, and badly acted at that. It’s like a bunch of student actors thought they could reproduce the success of the Blair Witch Project, but through a hoax zombie outbreak. Only they did it really badly.

The documentary claims to be the work of some film students who were out in the woods making a horror movie for class when a huge zombie outbreak occurred in the USA. As the social fabric breaks apart they travel across Pennsylvania in a Winnebago, first to find their families and then to find a friend, while one of the students films everything that happens. It is this film that becomes the documentary. Thus the documentary makers claim to have been in position to film the situation as it happened, though they admit that they edited a little and added soundtrack and effects “to scare you: because perhaps if you’re scared you won’t make the mistakes we made.” Unfortunately, I was really unconvinced that they were doing anything except making a B-grade movie. The acting is so bad as to be self-evidently badly acted, and the narrator tacks on this self-important moralizing about the role of the cameraman and the media, as if they were a seasoned (but tedious) war photographer, rather than a jumped-up student; and this moralizing is almost begging you not to take their “documentary” seriously, especially since in between the moralistic voice-over we’re constantly being reminded that they have no choice in doing what they’re doing. Also they all seem emotionally really shallow compared to the behavior of the people in Madrid. I know those people were Spanish, but they reacted more realistically and emotionally to the deaths of strangers than our student documentary-makers do to the deaths of their own family and friends. While it takes the people in that apartment a good half the movie to work out that they’ve stepped out of ordinary life and into a horror movie, these kids figure it out as soon as they hear a radio broadcast about a single dead person coming back to life. After that, they’re acting like survivors in a zombie movie with nary a whisper of complaint. It just doesn’t work. As a documentary, this movie is uninformative, overblown, overly moralistic and shallow. As a work of fiction (which is what I think it really is), this movie is badly acted, self-referential, poorly scripted and sentimental.

It’s also really cheap to portray a movie as a documentary without warning the viewer. Honesty is essential to the production of documentary film: how are the people desperately trying to tell us what happened in Madrid or Norway going to be believed if there craft is undermined by movies  posing as documentaries? People should know what they’re seeing from the start, or the educational and important messages of a film like Rec will be missed amongst the dross. So, give Diary of the Dead a miss but watch Troll Hunter and Rec if you want to educate yourself about how to deal with the ever-present zombie and troll threat.

I’m not a fan of American comedy in general, but Big Bang Theory has really impressed me. I presume no one in my readership is ignorant of the basic idea behind this show, but just in case: it’s about a group of nerds – three physicists and an engineer – who are completely out of touch with ordinary life, and one completely ordinary, normal, un-nerdy girl called Penny. In later seasons two additional extremely nerdy (and very, very funny) women join the group as partners of some of the boys. Two of the characters, Leonard and Sheldon, live together. The rest is classic American situation comedy, except that it’s all filmed from the perspective of the four nerds. There are no dufus macho American men like in Friends or your standard run of crappy sit-coms, clapping each other on the back and putting their feet on the seats: this is the kind of show where the main characters play D&D, or Settlers of Katan, and look on conscious displays of machismo as a kind of vice.

The humour is simultaneously smutty and sophisticated, which is unusual for American TV, and the characters are excellent. Even Sheldon, who is clearly an arsehole by anyone’s lights, is really funny and endearing, and Howard – who if he were a normal guy would be a horrible person – is quite sweet in his own crazy way. The central character, Leonard, is also the most normal of the group, in that all though he is a nerd’s nerd – nerdier than you or I can ever hope to be, young Jedi – he understands ordinary human interactions sufficiently to be able to pass as a normal human, and his gentle manner means that he regularly manages to pull quite hot women (without ever intending to). The rest of them, however, are lost in la-la land. And this is the central conceit of the show: everything that is normal and coherent is reversed, so that the social relations, interests and even dreams of ordinary people are seen as weird and outre, while the warped social dynamic of nerd-dom is recast as the norm. This show reverses the role of insider and outsider, so that designing an app to solve ODEs is a normal Friday night activity, while going out drinking with your buddies is weird and unenjoyable. Instead of having the nerd or the freak point out the social contradictions and oddities – as happens in, for example, The Breakfast Club – in this show it’s the ordinary Nebraskan woman, Penny, who is constantly confused and challenging the social norms. This reversal in itself offers a lot of entertainment, as we see what would happen if the things we know are weird and unusual were normal, and the things we know everyone expects to be normal were considered a waste of time. It also occasionally offers some quite interesting insights into what is wrong with the standard social order.

At the same time, however, the main characters are acutely aware of their status in broader society, and we are regularly reminded of their experience of bullying and social exclusion when they were younger. Now, of course, within the world of the university where they work, there is no such problem, and it is Penny – representative of ordinary society – who is cast as the outsider. But when they venture outside of their small group we are reminded of the fragility of their social setting and its fundamental defensiveness. Howard, out on the pull at a club, tells us in one memorable scene that if he waits until 3am all the cool kids will have scored, and he will be guaranteed success with the ugly and desperate social loners who remain – this is his conscious tactic. They occasionally have run-ins with people from their past, and are reminded of how weak they are in other social settings. Sometimes they try to do the right thing in broader society, to defend their rights as nerds or just to be moral, and it always comes back to bite them because they are weak and hated. So they return to their cocoon, aware that they are looked down upon by the rest of society but happy in their safe world. This isn’t really much like adult life as a nerd at all – nerds tend to be much more respected in adult life than they were in childhood, and this part of the show is very much about reliving childhood trauma in an adult setting – but it’s fun and in some ways (especially the parts about women and sex) still true.

The show does have a few weaknesses. The treatment of Raj, an Indian, I would consider to be racist at times, though also the way that he takes the piss out of the image of India as a poor and backward country is quite funny. The characters never seem to successfully get back at the people who bullied them in their school days, which is frustrating, and the gender relations are typically conservative in that weird American way that mystifies the rest of the world whenever we see it (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post). Also, at times Sheldon is so annoying as to be offensive, and you kind of wish that he would relent a little. But these are minor flaws, considering that this is a show where people quote Star Wars, play Klingon word games, regularly visit the comic shop, and quite frequently have carefully rendered debates about quantum mechanics. The scene where they play D&D is brilliant, and every episode is a gem of good humour. Also, Penny’s dealings with the boys – the way she is affectionate towards them but understands how completely weird they are – is a thing of beauty, sufficient to give all nerds everywhere the hope that they, too, will one day be able to lose their virginity.

I recommend this show for all nerds everywhere, or for partners of nerds who need to get an insight into their partners worlds without having to face the horror of actually participating in that weird shit. I also promise that if you, a nerd, watch it, you will be reassured of your normality in comparison to the freaks who populate the show. It’s a balm for the soul, if you’re into playing D&D in Elvish but don’t want to think you’re unusual. So if you haven’t already, give it a go…

I’m currently watching the latest season of Dexter, and as we were watching my partner suggested that it would be excellent to see an episode of either show in which Dexter visits New York (or vice versa). Perhaps he is chasing a serial killer operating in NY, or perhaps the Miami police have to go to New York on some task. Or vice versa. Some fun aspects of such an episode:

  • Deborah Morgan would be competing with Kate Beckett to solve the case; both of them would, of course, be competing with Dexter. How would Beckett handle Morgan? How would Morgan view Beckett?
  • Castle is very fond of making wild conspiracy theories: the whole episode/sequence could run with him consistently treating the truth about Dexter as a conspiracy theory to explain the weird events of the case; but of course everyone is laughing it off
  • Esposito could figure out how dangerous Dexter really is, but no one (except Castle!) believes him
  • Castle finds out the truth, and confronts Dexter
  • The story could be played in both TV series, so we see it from Castle/Beckett’s point of view and from Dexter/Deborah’s point of view.
  • There could be a spin-off where, having identified Dexter, Castle conceives of a new series of popular novels about a serial killer with a conscience, and moves to Florida for a year to become Dexter’s shadow instead of Beckett’s
  • Or better still, Beckett’s lieutenant palms Castle off onto Miami, and he spends a whole season tracking the Miami metro homicide squad, getting closer and closer to uncovering the truth about Dexter …
  • And, the novel Castle writes is called Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Of course such an idea is just silly. But I think it would be pretty funny.

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