Monday, January 31, 2005

Co-proxamol withdrawn

This sounds like an over-reaction. I mean, at some point we have to remember that risk is an every-day part of life. On that front I have a small suggestion. Last I recall hearing a figure approximately 3,500 people die each year on Britain's roads. If a drug, or other substance, can be proved to cause that many deaths a year then it should be withdrawn if it also provides substantial benefits. After all, we don't ban driving when in reality it is a far greater killer than many of the health scares. This would apply to other health-scares as well, like all the fuss over GM food.

Of course, HRT is known to greatly increase all sorts of risks for womens' health, yet it is still regularly prescribed, and no signs of that being withdrawn.

But that would expect something like logic and common sense from a government agency. Next thing that will happen is that they will ban Strepsils because someone might choke on them.

Review (sort of)
The Lord of the Rings Extended version, viewed in one sitting

I am on holiday this week, using up leave before the end of the holiday year (for me the same as the Financial Year). I decided to set one day aside to watch all six DVDs of the extended version of the Lord of the Rings movie, one after the other; and here, for what they are worth, are my thoughts.

Firstly, a few practical points. It pays to start relatively early. I started this at just after 9am, and I am grateful I did otherwise I would still be watching. Second, this is actually pretty difficult, especially alone. I imagine if a bunch of people were doing it together the cameraderie and spur of the moment commentary would help. I found the 5th DVD the hardest to keep going through - it was like the final steep hill on a cross-country run. The 6th DVD was like a downslope to the finishing line. Nibbles are essential, but should be rationed along the length of the film, interspersed by somewhat more substantial meals.

Was there any particular advantage to watching the whole thing at one sitting though? I would have to say yes.

The whole film flows together surprisingly well, better than the 3 films do individually. This is particularly noticeable in DVD#5. Seeing it as a whole means that the editing decisions to shift large-ish parts of TT into film3 is no longer apparent or problematic. It also makes one realise with even greater clarity just how much of RotK ended up hacked out of film3.

The Frodo/Sam/Gollum scenes also benefit, being now seen from beginning to end in one long sweep. The last gollum/smeagol sequence in Film2 basically foreshadows the Gollum of film3, but it is far more satisfactory to see the whole thing out to its conclusion in the Sammath Naur. I found Gollum's politicking rather blunt in Film3, but obviously it merely carries on from the division between Frodo and Sam already present in Film2, and this is far easier now to appreciate.

Watching the whole version together though also makes the weakness of this triangle of characters glaringly obvious: Gollum/Smeagol gives far the best performance, hats off to the computer geeks who did the animation and Andy Serkis for the amazing versatility of his voice. Frodo is especially weak, at times seeming simply flat. On reflection one wonders whether the character of Frodo should not have been given to a more mature actor, since Elijah Wood simply does not seem fully capable of carrying this difficult role.

Other characters/relationships that progress and are more appreciated for the one-sitting option: Merry/Pippin and Legolas/Gimli spring to mind. For the hobbits it is both the development of their friendship and their own personal development that is so engaging. In the case of Legolas/Gimli it is the development of the friendship. At Rivendell it is "Never trust an elf!", before the Black Gate "I never thought I die by an elf. / How about alongside a friend? / Aye, I could do that". It also makes plain how Gimli throughout was the comedy character, something I feel is a mistake. This is most obvious in film2, but also present in the other films. Some of the humour is fine, but some I feel cheapens things. Likewise I feel Gimli was often cheated of some of his best lines in Tolkein - in particular his relationship with Galadriel is glossed over.

One thing made even more obvious by the one-sitting is how out of place Gandalf's sudden cowardice and second-fiddling in film3 is. That is rather irritating, and in a way the one-sitting also highlights some things I consider flaws. I won't dwell really on these, since I've gone over most of them one time or another. There was one thing that became noticable to me though on this sitting, how at both Helms Deep and Minas Tirith Peter Jackson actually goes beyond Tolkien and makes the battle situations a good deal worse. In Helms Deep he has the orcs battering down the door into the hall, in Tolkein the citadal (the Hornburg) remains held. At Minas Tirith Jackson has the orcs high up in the city, Tolkein has them stopped at the first level. It seems to me that Peter Jackson was trying to make things utterly extreme, to add potency I guess. At Helms Deep it mostly works. At Minas Tirith it basically doesn't because while the Riders of Rohan are busily chopping up orcs and oliphants quite successfully apparently more and more orcs are pooring into the city when they should be attacking the Riders from behind. Also the confrontation between Gandalf and the Nazgul was off for similar reasons. It is strange the thing that anyone could film LotR in an over-the-top manner, but in this I think Peter Jackson does.

It made me think that of all Tolkien's great battles the one Peter Jackson was wanting to shoot was Nirnaeth Arnoediad: The Battle of Unnumbered Tears, for of all Tolkiens battles this is the one where hope nearly completely fails, where the scene between Gandalf and Pippin at that last gate has its home. For it is in the Silmarillion where such extreme feelings are at home, where the great alliances are everywhere defeated, where great fortresses that make Minas Tirith look petty, Nargothrond and Gondolin, fall to flame.

Which is a somewhat odd not to bring this to an end. For people like me the experience was worthwhile, but I would not casually recommend it.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Heading south

Going to Cornwall this weekend to see relatives and friends. I always like going back to Cornwall, in my view it is the most heavenly place in England - especially in the winter when all the tourists have disappeared. Besides, I think winter is the season when the duchy is most in harmony with itself. Summers are deceptive things, it is the wind, not the sun, which is most natural to Cornwall. Followed swiftly by the rain, fog, and mist.

I hope anyone who stumbles by has a good weekend. For some reason I'm wonderfully cheery.

This sickens me

BBC article

The Nazis thought nothing about pulling the plug on the life of undesirables. Apparently English law allows the same thing, and medical practice encourages it. I cannot properly describe how disgusted I felt when I heard about this in the morning, coming close on the heels of yesterday.

Hunting ban stands at first hurdle

BBC article

The expected result of this first challenge to the Hunting Ban. It will of course be repealed, and an injunction sought staying the law for the legal proceedings. I believe the government has said that it will not contest that injuction, but the anti-Hunting groups will do.

It is highly likely that the constitutional challenge of this route will fail, I suspect at least partly because of the political consequences of any court actually overturning the Parliament Act, and I can't believe that won't be a factor in judges' minds. From the little I know I think the challenge is probably also pretty weak on legal grounds, but I'm no lawyer after all.

Next week I think proceedings begin challenging the ban on human rights grounds. I have heard that there is a third legal avenue being explored, but if so I don't know what it is.

A thought on the confirmations

I've been reading about the confirmation battles for Rice and Gonzalez, mostly hoping that one day the Select Committees will have the sort of clout the senatorial committees seem to (I certainly think that there needs to be some sort of Parliamentary vetting for Cabinet ministers).

While I am very enthusiastic about Condi Rice, I must admit to being more concerned about Gonzalez. Something went wrong somewhere about Abu Ghraib, and I am concerned (though far from convinced) about possible responsibility and/or culpability on the part of Mr Gonzalez. However, by going after Condi Rice the way they have I think the Democrats have basically ensured that any criticism of Mr Gonzalez is lost in the partisan flamewar. If Condi had passed through quickly they would have been able to single out Gonzalez as being someone with whom they had a particular problem. But these indiscriminate tactics just mean there is so much muck lying around Gonzalez, if he has muck on his hands, doesn't really look so different from everyone else.

Perhaps all this was a pipe-dream anyway, but the chance of focusing that spotlight on Gonzalez is now gone, thanks to also attacking Rice.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

An anecdote

To highlight a point I made below, I caught a taxi home last week. The driver and I initially discussed the weather - safe and traditional - and this morphed firstly into global warming and then for some reason he related to me at some length how he was suspicious because there were too many Scots in politics. Now, that is not so silly, at the top of British politics there are a large number of Scots or people who can be labelled as such (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Charles Kennedy to name the 3 most notable). Not that I have a problem with this, but then the taxi driver went on. The man who really concerned him was Michael Howard, and the reason? Because he was Jewish. Fortunately we had reached my home by that point and I escaped without having to make much in the way of reply.

It's the first time I have come across anti-Semitism in person ever, I think (more accurately it may just be the first time I noticed it in person).

Is the Holocaust unique?

On balance, I think I have to answer no, but with a little consideration for what I mean.

First, what is the Holocaust? An attempt to wipe out all undesirables (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the retarded, et al - of which Jews were the largest group). Is the desire behind that - the bigotry - unique? Sadly no, we humans are particularly apt at trying to wipe out people who believe things we disagree with and/or find deeply suspicious. Sometimes these are based on religion (the great Christian persuections under Decius, Valerius, and Galerius spring immediately to mind) and sometimes these are based on matters of race (for example, Rwanda). The Roman Empire used genocide as a tool of public policy - if everyone was dead/enslaved then they wouldn't be bothering you anymore - a sort of death penalty applied at the 'national' level.

This hatred is very common throughout human history. The great difference I think as perceived between the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the genocide that we call the Holocaust is one of organisation. The former two were very much ad hoc affairs. There was a degree of organisation, and maybe even direction, but there was also a large element of simply fanatic fervour that drove everything forward. In contrast the genocide of the Holocaust with its ghettos and then its camps seems incredibly drab and controlled.

Part of this, perhaps the whole of this, is simply down to ability. The Third Reich was really quite good at organising things. It is a stereotype that Germans are sticklers for efficiency as well, and such stereotypes often have a kernel of truth. So perhaps in addition to ability was a latent inclination to organistion that helped propel the Holocaust down its bureaucratic root. That organisation is the key to the Holocaust's macabre success in nearly wiping out German-Occupied Jewry. Does that make the holocaust unique? Does the quantity that resulted alter the 'quality' of the crime?

On one level of course it does, but it does not for me catapult the Holocaust into that territory of the unique, and here is why.

If the event is unique, a one-off, it can never happen again. That is what unique means, after all. It lets us off the hook, means we can let down our guard. The Holocaust is not unique, to me, because the motives behind it are all to common in human history and in the human present. Rwanda should have taught us that something of a similar scale is still very possible in today's world. The Balkans should have shown us that the tensions and suspicions that give rise to these genocidal impulses can lie dormant for a generation or two before a Vesuvian eruption. Rwanda and the Balkans, and indeed the Holocaust itself, should remind us that Jews are not the sole victims of such crimes (an impression all too easy to pick up, unfortunately, by the poor quality of modern history). We are all at risk of becoming victims. We are all at risk, more importantly, of becoming perpetrators.

For the moment the Holocaust remains unmatched in human imagination. For the moment.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

To join or not to join

About nine months or so ago I considered joining a union (UNISON) and decided against it. My chief difficulty in this was the political affiliation between the Labour Party and the union. My difficulty is that I simply find such affiliations unhealthy, and view them as being intrinsically corrupt. More importantly, I view them as harmful to both the unions and the Labour party (as a side-note I am similarly concerned by other formal or semi-formal links between other groups and other parties).

However, I am again considering the question of union membership. It would certainly bring advantages for really a very small financial drain. From a completely selfish perspective, there is no doubt what I should do. But this political affiliation thing keeps rearing its ugly head.

I'll have to mull it over some more. The union under consideration is still UNISON. However, I guess I'm more for joining now than I was nine months ago. As for what has changed, I'm honestly not sure. Perhaps its just the everyday experience of working in the NHS, perhaps its something else. Don't know. If I can work out the answer to that, then perhaps I'll be able to decide whether or not to join.

An Anglo-American comparison

This article in the NRO by Mark Oppenheimer is about American college education, but it begins (and is laced through) with a comparison of two passages. The first is from a review of a biography of P G Wodehouse by Stephen Fry:

They say it would take a lifetime simply to copy out the works of Bach or Telemann. Much the same is true of Wodehouse. I know: at school I hammered out all of his novel "Fringe Assets" on an electric Remington in an effort to teach myself to touch-type, an effort that took me a term and a half.

The second is by Anthony Grafton reviewing a book called "The Rule of Four":

Undergraduates do all sorts of things at universities. They play computer games, they eat pizza, they go to parties, they have sex, they work out, and they amuse each other by their pretensions. What most fiction has ignored is that a lot of them also spend vast amounts of time alone, attacking the kinds of intellectual problems that can easily swallow lifetimes. In the perilous months of their last years at good colleges and universities, seniors parachute into mathematical puzzles, sociological aporiae, and historical mysteries that have baffled professionals. With the help — and sometimes the hindrance — of their teachers, but chiefly relying on their own wits and those of their close friends, they attack Big Questions, Big Books, and Big Problems.

From these two passages he looks at the subject. It is a long, but very interesting read. I think the implicit comparison between Stephen Fry learning to touch-type and the more modern picture is really one of time rather than place however. Read the whole thing, as they say.

I spotted this over at Fraters Libertas. Clearly I am going to have to get around to adding them to my blogroll at some point.

Tories on immigration

And once again, the Tories start courting the BNP, with Michael Howard this week unveiling the Tories plans on immigration (BBC article here). It was crypto-racist policies not unlike these that caused me not to vote Tory in 2001.

I am basically someone who believes that immigration is basically a good thing. I also happen to believe it to be something of a necessity - the ageing population and all that. I find it strange, to say the least, that Michael Howard is trying to deny the opportunity of migration that he and his family benefited from fleeing the Nazis to people who were fleeing the Taliban or similar.

Asylum Seekers - the big bugbear of this debate. No matter that there numbers are decreasing, and have been decreasing for some time (no surprise when you consider things like the removal from power of the Taliban), the Tories are still trumpeting this.

Heavens, even Tanuton needs immigration to fill some pretty vital public jobs like bus-driving. I kid you not. There was a massive shortage of bus-drivers here, now somewhat relieved thanks to a small influx of Poles. I think the company waited until after Poland entered the EU officially just to avoid the red-tape. Now the buses actually manage to run on time a good deal more often than they used to.

Oh, people say, we need to address this issue to limit the effects of the BNP. Sure, the issue needs to be addressed, but not how the BNP are addressing it!!!! That is what the Tories are doing, and perhaps a few consciences are squeaking with their glib lies, pandering to prejudice and the BNP. How about a really radical proposal, one that directly tackles the BNP, and fight for immigration.

Now, when you get down to details I am not particularly opposed to some sort of quota system for actual immigrants (though I am opposed to one for refugees/asylum seekers). What I am opposed to is the attitude of the Tory platform. And yes, I do think unfortunately there are Conservatives out there who are racist, knowingly so, and are pleased as punch at these proposals.

One very very serious mark against the Tories.

PS - I'm underwhelmed by Labour and the LibDems on this issue as well, so it becomes a 'negative' issue for me in that I am defining myself against a party position rather than for one.

The Oscars

Only a brief comment, I was sorry to see that Jim Caviezel was not nominated for his role in The Passion of the Christ, and I was pleased to see that film was nominated for its score.

I watched so little of the other films that I really cannot comment.

Seven factors

Anthony Wells (who moved sites just after I mentioned him below!!!) has done an excellent post called Seven factors that could change the election. It is a very good list, and I urge anyone interested in the (probable) upcoming UK General election to give them a read.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Mandatory Training

I had a Mandatory Training Day at work today (or half-day, more accurately). Otherwise known as 'what-a-waste time day'. Listen to four speakers saying what should be happening, in an ideal world, and then return to our Departments in the real world where we have to contend with what actually happens.

As I said there were four speakers today. One was a gentleman, the other three were ladies. The gentleman's topic was easily the one in which people were most alert. And why? Because he joked quite openly about the differences between the dream of bureacrats in Whitehall (or in our own Management corridor) and our daily reality - a cynical smile in which we all could share. He was also the only one not to use Powerpoint, stand in the centre of the room, and actually speak loudly enough to be heard and slow enough to allow his words to penetrate. To be fair one of the ladies was very croaky, so it is perhaps unfair to judge, the other however were perfect examples of bad presentation. One spent the first 5 minutes trying to find her presentation on the computer, failed (someone else had to run out to get the CD) and then motored through it so quickly it was just about useless. And that was on probably the most important topic, Freedom of Information.

But at least she was audible and mostly clear. The other lady, who murmered along just as quickly, stood diffidently to the side like the two dozen or so of us might start hurling abuse. I mean, she literally shrank into the wall at times, her eyes nervously glancing at us and the projector screen.

Is it too much to ask that people presenting these things speak clearly? Is it too much to ask they spend a minute or two making sure they have all they need? Is it too much to ask them to stop treating us like idiots, and just acknowledge the fantasies they are spouting are pipe-dreams and nothing more? The gentleman was able to actually get a few serious and important points across, most of what the other three said is already a distant memory.

In memory of Churchill

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. He was, perhaps, the greatest man or woman of the 20th century. People like him scatter the pages of the history books, tantalising and mysterious. How, one wonders, will he be viewed in the distant future? Say the span of time between his life and that of King Alfred. I wonder how those future historians will consider these words, that resonate as powerfully today as they did when first they were spoken, on June 18th, 1940.

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Slightly bizarre

According to this BBC article there are some moves afoot in Austria to strip Arnold Schwarzenegger of his Austrian citizenship because he allowed an execution to go aheadin California. I'm guessing its just someone trying to make a stir, and I can't believe any serious person would consider it a reasonable course of action, but you wouldn't know that from the article.

Book Review #2
Blenheim: Battle for Europe by Charles Spencer

This book was written for the 300th anniversary of the battle of Blenheim last year. I don't know much of this period, which is why I bought this book.

It is divided into five Parts. Part 1 goes from the start of Louis XIV's personal rule to the start of the War of Spanish Succession, giving the context to the later war. It also briefly deals with the rather turbulent political events in England in the latter part of the 17th century - notable the reign of James II and VII. Part 2 deals with the first years of the War of Spanish Succession itself. Part 3 details the campaign upto the battle, while Part 4 is a description of the Battle itself. Part 5 deals with the aftermath.

This book has a second subtitle: How two men stopped the French conquest of Europe, for it also focuses on the two allied generals that day: Lord Marlborough (John Churchill) and Prince Eugene. Charles Spencer draws very good biographical pictures of these two interesting men. The book itself often tells the story from the point of view of these two generals (and their opposite numbers). This is not to say it neglects the stories of the soldiers and lower officers, but the 1704 campaign is (like most military campaigns I guess) only really understood by looking at the personalities of the ones calling the shots. Apart from looking in detail at Prince Eugene however this is a book that views the battle from very much a British perspective. Obviously this doesn't particular bother me, and the author doesn't pretend otherwise.

The description of the battle itself is really pretty good. A knowledge of the battle of Sedgemoor is useful, and while when discussion Marlborough a description of this battle is included a map would have been useful to demonstrate just how similar Blenheim and Sedgemoor were. Particularly in one chief respect: attacking over a water obstacle the defenders (wrongly) thought was a secure defence. There is a good map of the Battle of Blenheim itself, and also of one of the earlier battles in the campaign, Schellenburg.

The weak part of this book is the aftermath - it fails to make the case for the main subtitle: why was Blenheim the Battle of Europe? Perhaps this is because that is something simply not possible to do in one book that, as well as talking about Blenheim, is also giving an introductory history lesson of (Western) Europe's geopolitics for the preceeding 40 years.

The great strength of this book is its easy writing prose, which made reading it a doddle. It does have a lot of information, and is aimed perfectly at the market of people who don't know much about the period. Should Waddling Thunder ever read it I would be very interesting in hearing his take on it, since he is someone who knows really quite a bit on the period.

Country Elections

So it does appear that I'm having to work out how to vote in a local election this year, since 2005 is a year of county elections. I don't have any idea which way I'll turn here. I just spent half an hour trying to work out precisely which county seat I happen to live in. Perhaps I was just being dumb, but I found the Somerset County Council website really impossible on this front. Maybe I missed it, but where was the thing that goes: enter your postcode and find your councillor?

Here is a list of the division of responsibilities between District/Borough level (which is not voting) and County level (which is). Looking at that list I'm not really certain where to base my vote. I'm going to have to do some thinking.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Book Review #1
J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

OK, I'm going to hop onto the 50 Book challenge bandwagon, and this is the first book I read in the year.

In some respects this is an ill-named book. The book is basically trying to establish why Tolkien should be considered the author of the (20th) century in the face of some of the objections of the various literary critics who have been dismissing Lord of the Rings for the past 50 years. I do not think that this book actually does this - it is simply far too short. What it does do is open the world on Tolkien's writings, with some very interesting comments from a man who was in the same profession.

What do I mean by that? Everyone who knows anything about Tolkien probably knows that Tolkien was an authority on Old English and incorporated much of that in his writings. What Tom Shippey does is illustrate examples and shows how. In looking at where Tolkien derived some of his words and names the discussion gets quite detailed. Indeed, in some respects I think a more accurate subtitle to the book might be "A philological view".

However, Tom Shippey goes beyond the words themselves - though they are central to Tolkien's works - and into many of the themes that informed and can be found in Tolkien. Of particular interest are his discussion into concepts of evil in Tolkien, and also of the influence of religion. In my experience most commentators are very uncomfortable, often unwilling, to address the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic his whole life and that, just perhaps, this also influenced him. Indeed, in one of his letters Tolkien described Lord of the Rings as being a "fundementally Catholic" work.

As for layout Tom Shippey works through Tolkien's writings through the books themselves, addressing the major issues each work raises. The Hobbit gets the first chapter, the Lord of the Rings the next three, the Silmarillion the fifth, and finally his other writings form a sixth. This structure is not a straight-jacket however, and he is happy to reference to other works other than the one being centred on to further illustrate his points and provide more examples. Finally the work ends with a very brief round-up of some of the major critics and copycats. This last chapter (actually an Afterword) is really the only part that I feel directly addresses the "Author of the Century" epithet. Also the Introduction is well worth the read.

For myself, apart from the chapter on concepts of evil (one of the LotR chapters) I found the Silmarillion chapter and other works chapters the most interesting. The last because its just interesting to see some serious detail on those lesser known works (of which the only one I've read is Farmer Giles of Ham). The first because the Silmarillion is the work of Tolkien I like the most, by far (though I read LotR more often).

Anyway, a highly readable, informative, and enriching book on Tolkien and his work. I very much recommend.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Ken MacLeod blog

Just run across this blog by author Ken MacLeod. He is a sci-fi author of some ability. I've read two of his words (Star Fraction and Stone Canal), and have another on my shelf waiting for me to pick it up (Cassini Division). The two I've read are very good, set in the near future.

Rightly or wrongly I attribute Ken MacLeod to the same "school" of British sci-fi as Alasdair Reynolds (whose Century Rain has just arrived via the wonders of Amazon). That is the Iain Banks school of sci-fi.

Looking forward

As people probably know just about everyone who cares is expected a General Election over here in the UK on May 5th. Unless something truly earth-shattering occurs that prevents the vote I already which box I'm marking off for the national poll. I live in one of the seats the Tories picked up in 2001 from the Lib Dems (who picked it up from the Tories in 1997). It has a thin majority. As I have already indicated I really really disagree with Liberal Democrats at the moment, so my vote goes for the Tories.

However, if I had my own choice I would vote for a Blairite pro-war MP from the Labour Party. If s/he were anti-EU this would be a bonus, but I would ideally vote for even a pro-EU candidate with the other characteristics if I thought such a person had a hope in hell in this seat. This is not because I am particularly fond of the Labour Party, I am not, but I am equally unfond of the Tory Party as well. I also happen to consider the War on Terror and in Iraq to be the most important thing happening - more important than my dislike of the EU. Also I simply don't trust the Tories. Perhaps I would ideally do away with the NHS, but, and this is an important but, I know I am in a very small minority about that. In the meantime I think Labour at least have some plans on the table that have a chance of improving matters. What do the Tories have? Nothing really that I can see.

Unless I've gotten myself compeltely muddled I do think there are also County elections here this year, and I haven't yet decided which way I will go at that level.

Anyway, I'll just note that Anthony Wells is a really useful sight for considering UK political polling, and I highly recommend it. He really helps cut through some of the mystification of polls and their reporting. He is a Tory, but his reporting of the polls seems fairly level. In many ways he reminds me of Mark Blumenthal of Mystery Pollster.

Wishful thinking

Appparenty the CIA is predicting that the EU will break-up within 15 years.

Unfortunately I don't particularly have much faith in the CIA, for a number of reasons. Still, it's nice to dream.

(Via Instapundit)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I hate Blogger

Blogger has just eaten two consecutive posts. Shall we say that I am not impressed.

UPDATE: OK, it appears I really have Microsoft to blame since the posts posted, merely that I was unable to view them. I get this from time to time, it is an erratic problem but highly irritating. Anyway, this was not Blogger's fault this time.

Well done Condi

I have to say that I was most heartened to hear Condoleeze Rice name Zimbabwe as "outpost of tyranny". The others so named were Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, and Belarus. The BBC appears to have gotten its knickers in a twist (its is called Auntie after all) about it, the article I read darkly mused at the similarity to the "Axis of Evil". And then goes on to give prominence to a Zanu-PF denial. Is this the organisation that, during WW2, broadcast V for Victory into occupied Europe?

Perhaps I am a little harsh on the BBC, but listening to the Today Programme reporting today of the British prisoner abuse trial convinces me I am not. When they were saying there is no difference between the abuse those soldiers may have infliected (innocent until proven guilty after all) and Saddam Hussein's thugs, there is one rather large and unavoidable difference there were trying their best to hide. The soldiers so accused are being prosecuted in a fair trial. What could be more different from the processes of Hussein's Iraq? But I forgot, the BBC simply wishes for more British dead so it can print even more lurid and fantastical headines. And I no longer say that tongue in cheek.

And on a similar note since Taunton is a marginal Tory-LibDem seat, and therefore likely to be visited by Charles Kennedy in an election campaign, I am struggling to resist the temptation of keeping back a few eggs now so they will be really rotten by May, and therefore perfectly ripe for me to hurl at him.

But to end on a happy note, I was very impressed by what I read of Miss Rice's hearings, and she pissed off all the right people.

Prince Harry

Old news now, Harry's lamentable choice of costume at fancy dress. I do, however, have one observation. When the reports bothered to mention it, Harry was supposed to be Erwin Rommel. One wonders if there would have been any reaction if he hadn't worn the armband?

OK, I lie, a second observation. How does banning the Swastika preciely make us a freer country/continent? Oh, and what are you going to do with all those swastikas put in churches and whatnot in the Middle Ages and whatnot? Oh, and what about historical dramas? Or artistry where the depiction of the swastika has great potential to represent the sinister and oppressive?

One has also to wonder about the hysteria. It rings to me incredibly hollow. The papers do protest too much. I doubt many editors or columnists out there actually care one whit.


Just finally got around to doing a little house-keeping. I've been putting it off, even though there wasn't really not much to do. Only of real note is that I've added Andy's interesting blog (the same Andy about the NHS posts below). Secondly, I must admit to suffering from Northern Alliance creep. First it was the guys at Powerline. Then along came Hugh Hewitt and Captain's Quarters. I suppose I really should have put Fratres Libertas over there as well, but I hate dealing with the template. Maybe next time.

Sunday, January 16, 2005


Al posts on that most famous speech by Martin Luther King. I think he highlights the most important part.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I can only feel that we are still dreaming - and not living - that dream. It is so easy to judge by colour - we are a lazy race. Far easier to bring in quotas and imprison us in numbers. Far easier to diminish character and find fault. Far easier to say that something is too hard to achieve, to settle for the mediocre. Quick to pick the holes in dreams when they do not match up to reality we see.

Why are we here today? We are here because of dreamers, because of men and women of courage and confidence who said that we did not have to accept a second-best outcome, that we could rise above our faults and reach across our differences, and move onto greater things. They never claimed it would be an easy ride: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat", as one dreamer said as destiny was thrust upon him (incidentally January 24th is the 40th anniversary of that dreamer's death).

We are still searching for that famous dream, and there are those that wish to turn it into nightmare. Those who wish to forge anew chains more terrible than those which bound in days gone by, for these chains have taken the seeming of what is right to hide their true nature.

And one wonders how some today would react to this other paragraph of that famous, national, political, speech:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.


It made it!!!

I've been suffering with connection difficulties all weekend, but just a quick note that Huygens made it! You could say I am moderately excited.

I noticed the BBC tried to play down NASA's role as much as possible, and that some bloggers played down ESA's role as much as possible. I just wish the twits on both sides of that camp would shut up. Through the joint efforts of NASA and ESA we have a probe orbiting Saturn, and have set a probe down on the surface of Titan. This is an achievement I hope that all humanity could take a measure of pride in, for it is our collective experience of this wondrous solar system that is being enhanced.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Wanting it both ways

Andrew Sullivan is a writer whom I found myself disagreeing with more and more as he lurched into Bush-hatred. I know why he did that, but then, I am surprised that he was surprised at the hostile reaction to the Massachusetts court decision. What, I had to ask, had he been doing for the past few years? Politically the court case boxed Bush into a corner, and what on earth did Andrew expect Bush to do? Abandon all hopes of re-election? Because the quickest way to loose an election is to massively alienate your base, and unlike Tony Blair with his support of the war in Iraq GWB doesn't have anything like as comfy a majority.

His Bush-hatred of course extends to a wider hatred of religious conservatism - he has an obsession with the religious right that I find simply baffling. Anyway, he says in response to a published letter:

One of the tasks of liberal citizenship is to eschew our religious convictions as guides to the equality of other citizens. It is, in my view, a failure of the liberal temperament to regard some who have a different faith or no faith as somehow less qualified for public office, let alone the highest public office.

Of course, typically he ignores the issue that many people, including many people who voted against Bush, did show just because they regarded him as unfit because of his religious beliefs. And why not? Why shouldn't people be allowed to inform their opinions of people on the basis of their religious beliefs? Indeed, it is probably impossible to stop them from doing so because, guess what, that part of what being human is all about.

The letter he is responding to is making that exact same point, but Andrew fails anywhere that I can see the people who voted against George Bush because of his religious convictions. Indeed, since he largely voted against Bush himself because of Bush's religious convictions on the issue of homosexuality I simply think Andrew is typically engaging in the democratic practice of Communism - you can vote so long as you vote in line with the way you're told. Where, one asks, are the Voltaire's and the 'I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it'? Clearly Andrew Sullivan is not one.

Personally I would be very worried if an irreligious person became PM - though it will probably happen before too long. I will probably vote against that man or woman's party when it happens. But of a certainty, they have a right to stand.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Why live on a floodplain

Al over at Hear the Hurd notes in a post that people are almost always going to live in areas prone to natural disasters of some sort or other, and he is utterly unimpressed by those who demand governments do "something" about it.

I wonder, is the US government supposed to stop people living in San Francisco because it is on the San Andreas fault?

Also, the first human civilisations began on flood plains. There were reasons for that. Those are pretty much the same reasons humans still live on floodplains today. They had floods back then too. Big deal. If a flood is caused by a breaking dam, then there would most likely be a cause for compensation. But Mother Nature just dropping a bit of rain. There is a word for that sort of thing. Life. And no where that I know of is there a rule that says life is meant to be fair or pleasant.

Nature is the pretty flower or golden sunset. It is raging torrent and stately lava flow, it is the sweetness of fruit and the stink of sulpher, the singing of birds and the shaking of earth, the sound of laughter and the wailing of mourners. It is wonderful, and dreadful. I think our society is in danger of forgetting that what Nature gives it can also take away.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Popular Politics

DM Andy writes about the popularity of politics in Britain today, completely drubbing the idea that more people vote for reality shows than for politicians.

Using numbers for the General election with the lowest turnout for decades.

And then there is the tale of the European elections. In 1999 turnout was 24%. In 2004 turnout was 38.2%. People will vote, just so long as they think there is a reason to. The same was of course proved across in the pond in the US on November 2nd.

Saying that I would not be surprised if turnout in the expected General Election this year remained low. But I would not be surprised if it broke the 70% barrier either. Quite a few people are angry at Labour for various things, and that might well be a motivating factor.

The day the world moved

OK, corny title, but entirely accurate. The North Pole is thought to have shifted about an inch, and 2.68 microseconds got shaved off a day. All the projected result of the Indian earthquake. Which made me wonder - all those atomic clocks people are building to be accurate within one second in however million years have to be adjusted slightly or something.

And remember, on Friday the Huygens probe makes its descent into Titan.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Efficiency in the NHS

Andy says I didn't address his point about the efficiency in the NHS. I suppose I didn't, not directly. What I was trying to do in matching his points was express my thoughts on 5 areas that Andy highlighted. A particular point I think I was feeling my way towards, but didn't state explicitly, is that what is the point of being more efficient if you don't have the doctors or nurses to actually treat the patients, or don't actually have the drugs to enable the best healthcare. Another cost of the efficiency is the so-called Postcode Lottery - that is when one is imprisoned by one's place of residence at times to accept inferior healthcare. Now, for me these are inefficiencies.

Andy in his original post does quote some figures to back up his idea that the NHS is more efficient (post here). In particular he compares expenditure per person by year with average life-expetency. Now, I have heard that argument that one reason why the US tops the global healthcare expenditure per person is the greater amount of medical research that goes on in the US. I couldn't find any breakdown on research on the WHO site Andy linked to (though I admit I am not the best person at navigating such sites). If true however there is a gross distortion already in the figures, because it means we in the UK benefit from costs incurred elsewhere. That may make the NHS a more opportunistic and parasiticial system if true, but it does not make the NHS more efficient. I am also just generally wary about the validity of comparing life-expectency because of the many possible factors that influence those numbers beyond the effiency or inefficiency of the local healthcare systems.

So I think that is my most direct answer (since I am not going to answer his more specific points here about healthcare in Taunton, I might in another post). However, this comes with one main caveat. Namely that my experience of the NHS personally is mostly negative, and from accounts of family and friends I have no reason to believe that I am especially unlukcy in that (a mixed bad as I said earlier, some had good luck, others didn't). As with all these things so much depends on from where you stand, and I seem to stand in a very different place from Andy on this.

Which leads to a final thing. In his comment Andy says "We should both be proud that we work for such a value-for-money organisation." Now, leaving aside that I am very unconvinced that the NHS is value-for-money, there is a more basic problem with this. I know many people (presumably Andy included) who are proud to work in the NHS. I am proud to work with some wonderful people, I am proud to (hopefully) help people at difficult times. But I am not proud of working in the NHS. It is probably one of the reason I stand in a different place to Andy on these issues.

The Hardest thing

The hardest thing in any political system is the transfer of power. In democracies that extends to every election, to every possible transfer of power. Democracy though has a further difficulty, because it depends on the losing sides to accept their defeat (in other systems losing sides tend to pleading their case to a higher authority).

The Democrats, or rather certain more-extreme Democrats, have clearly proved incapable of meeting that challenge.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A note

Just to thank Andy for his comment on the NHS post below, and I'm just thinking things over before I make a reply. Oh, and getting some sleep.

Horror films

Al over at Hear the Hurd posts a list of his top 20 horror films, with quite a bit of commentary. It's an interesting list which does rather pose the question, what is horror? I'll return to that in a moment.

Of the 20 in his main list (he does make a few honourable mentions) I have watched the grand total of 4. They are The Exorcist, Scream, Alien, and Jaws (though for Jaws it is more accurate to say I have seen all the film at one time or another, just never at the same sitting). Now, on one level this does not surprise me because I just don't watch that many films anyway, and horror films tend not to be high on my list anyway. Indeed, 3 of those I have watched are not really what I would call conventional horror. I think it is interesting that two of those (Jaws and the Exocist) top Al's list.

What do I think is "conventional horror" - perhaps "popular horror" would be a better term - well Scream seems to sum it up. A film I would never have watched on my own accord, but did because friends badgered me into going. I have as little desire now to see some of the other films on the list however as I have ever done. I am sure they are good works, but there is something about what I perceive as a mostly 'blood-shock-gore' class of films that just doesn't do anything for me. Of course, my perception could be entirely wrong, but there it is.

Jaws, Exorcist, and Alien don't, for me, fall into that category, though all have elements of blood, shock, and gore. For me though it takes those elements into fresh territories - the sea, religion, space. Perhaps that explains why horror films don't mean that much to me, it is because the images don't mean anything whereas sea-stories, religious stories, and space stories are three of my favourite kind of stories.

I would put Exorcist on a pedastal though, above Jaws and Alien. Jaws is a fine film, and the ending (which have seen plenty of times) is masterful. But it is, in its way, entirely 'natural'. Alien is another fine film, but the alien, though hostile, is again for me 'natural'. In the Exorcist one encounters a portrayal of Evil. Not evil as in the twisted works of man, curses, or whatnot, but Evil, malevolent and pitiless. Of course, I don't have any desire to watch the Exorcist ever again: it is in some respects too powerful a film.

I'm not really sure where this lands me in the question I asked at the beginning: what is horror? I just know what I, if not precisely like (I do not precisely like the Exorcist after all), know to be fearful. Or something. If you can make sense of this, you're doing better than me.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Review: Phantom of the Opera (film version)

First things, I have never read the book that the stage version was based on, but I have been in love with the stage version and the music for many many years. Indeed, in many ways I am hesitant to read the book precisely because I like the stage version so much.

The short review is: if you like the stage version, I can't imagine you not liking this. If you don't like Andrew Lloyd Webber or his music however, save your money.

This is, of course, a film of the stage version, not a film of the book. It stays really very faithful the stage version for most of its length. There are a few changes. Some of these are minor alterations of verse, some of the songs are truncatde. An 'explanation' scene of the phatom is added (imo the weakest moment in the film). There is one semi-major change, but it does not substantially alter the character of the work, so I'm happy to let that pass.

There were two particular sequences that I found very impressive. The first is the starting one, in the "present" at the auction, and the uncovering of the chandelier. The music of the overture has always been the most poweful for me (repeated of course in the signature song). The sequence of the transformation from "the present", drab and dreary (its filmed like on old film) to the bright and colourful past is superb. The second sequence is the replaying of that tune, in the eponymous Phantom of the Opera song/scene. However, in neither sequence do I think it excelled (though it did equal) the stage version sequences. In part that is because so much is told by the music.

And I love the music.

AS for the characters, the quality of acting was superb. In particular I found Carlotta (Minnie Driver) to be very enlightening. I think it must be very hard to play (to sing, even) a "poor" singer, but the character of Carlotta comes across perfectly. Indeed, I can honsetly say that I never fully appreciated Carlotta as a character until I watched this. Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) gives what I think is actually one of the best performances in the film, really bringing out this rather pivotal role.

Of course, the film really revolves around three characters: Raoul (Patrick Wilson), Christine (Emmy Rossum) and the Phantom (Gerard Butler), and here I am afraid I go off on one of my tangents, so what follows is really more of me thinking aloud and not really a review.

It is actually quite a tricky relationship, with the sort of blurring that I love. On a purely superficial level it seems simple, the Phantom is the baddie, Christine the victim, and Raoul the hero. Of course, that is entirely wrong, the roles are far more blurred, though the superficial characteristics do have some value (they are not, after all, entirely wrong).

Of the three though I found Raoul to least able to capture the ambiguity of character, for while Raoul might superficially be the rescuing hero, he is also the victim in the grotto, and more widely he is the oppressor, the force of society that rejects and makes outcast those like the Phantom. He also is, at times, plainly ignorant "there is no phantom of opera" at one point he states, showing that he clearly does not believe or understand Christine's tale.

Christine is, in some ways, simpler. Superficially the victim, in the grotto she is the rescuer not only superficailly on Raoul, but also of the Phantom. But in her own way she is the villain - the unthinking rejection of the Phantom when she uncovers the mask, the automatic revulsion - is a typical kind of oppression. She is also the most heroic in many ways of all the three in that moment in the grotto.

The Phantom is probably more complex, superficially the villain. But is he? There is no doubt many of his deeds are moderately despicable, but he exerts great sympathy through the condition of his existence: "not for any mortal sin, but for the wickedness of my abhorrent face". In the grotto he is plainly the villain, but also the victim: "hounded out by everyone / met with hatred everywhere / no kind word from anyone / no compassion anywhere / Christine Christine / why? why?". the sense of victim and villain pursue him through most of the play/film, though he starts off as a hero-figure (the Angel of Music). Conveying these elements without farce is not an easy thing to do. It is done excellents in face and tone of voice. There is a madness to the Phantom, and a terrible sadness. In many ways he reminds me of Heathcliffe, that gypsy cuckoo-child of Wuthering Hieghts

Other thoughts, all three are in their ways innocent and ignorant. The ignorance is easier to see - Roaul's ignorance of the Phantom most starkly at Masquerade, Christine's same ignorance at her father's grave, and the Phantom's own ignorance of people. Then we come to innocence. Raoul is is man of the solid world, innocent of the knowledge of fantasy. It is a reverse innocence of the usual kind in many ways. Christine is more conventionally innoncent, but is also the first to loose it on the first descent into the grotto and the literal uncovering of the mask. The Phantom's innoence is the innocence of the animal. He makes in many respects the reverse journey of Raoul, from being steeped in knowledge of the fantastical world to understnading something of the real world, at the end. Both Raoul and the Phantom make their jounrneys from ignorance and innocence through Christine, and Christine has her ignorance corrected by Roaul and her innocence taken away by Phantom.

Another parallel that comes to mind is the myriad relatinships between Angus Thermopylae, Morn Hyland, and Nick Succorso in The Real Story by Stephen Donaldson and the subsequent Gap books.

Anyway, sorry for the tangnet. I recommend it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The role of God in tragedy

I may, or more likely may not, develop this thought further, but the essense is as follows.

I sometimes feel that I have a quasi-mediaeval outlook on aspects of this world. However, that does not particularly extend to seeing natural events such as earthquakes as being a sign of God's punishment (NB: In a rather faux-mediaeval way I am open to the possibility that such things represent the Fallen state of the world, but it is not actually something I would go so far as to say I believe in). Nonetheless, for me it is blindingly obvious that God is present in these disasters. Not in the disasters themselves, but in the world's response so far.

So the earthquake has affirmed, not shaken, my faith in God, and also my faith in humanity. Why should we care about what happens half the world away? There is no real reason, and in times past it would not have mattered, we would have been unable to have done anything even if we were willing.

Just my basic thoughts

Monday, January 03, 2005


This posted by Norman Geras had me in fits. Read it.


Andy has replied to my post on the NHS below. He makes five points about why the NHS might be more efficient than a fully privatised health system over here. For all I know he might be right, but I've listed my replies to his five specific points below.

Now, with the proviso that I don't have a clear idea in my head about what I'd prefer (since it is wishing after moonbeams) here are my problems with some of those ideas. I'll title the points the same as Andy has done:

1) Advertising - Well, we don't have advertising because the various Trusts are all little monopolies, more or less. But is that a good thing? In the long-run, I'd have to say no. People should not have to accept substandard healthcare in one region if they are willing to make the journey into a Trust that offers better. It's called the postcode lottery, and people are not allowed to vote with their feet. If choice is properly introduced to the NHS as Tony Blair seems to propose some sort of advertising will begin anyway as Trusts start to compete. Personally, I look forward to it.

2) Invoicing - I honestly don't know much about this on the big scene, but I know that for the basic stationary and what have you in my office half the time it would be cheaper if we just walked down the road to Tescos or what have you to fill our needs.

3) Litigation - I don't actually think that has anything to do with the sort of health system, and more to do with societies. We are becoming a more litigious society over here (or given how litigious people were in mediaeval times, returning to a more litigious society?). Walking the line on medical litigation is a difficult one - and it is a line that we will have to draw somewhere. However, since we don't have punitive damages over here I think this is a lesser problem anyway, and not directly related to a nationalised or privatised system.

4) Drugs. The old conundrum: cheaper, but less effective healthcare; or more expensive, but more effective healthcare. NICE is the arbiter of that. While it does keep prices down, there is a cost. It comes down to what you are prepared to pay. But alas, as I said in my earlier post, the whole rhetoric of the NHS is that it is "free". From a practical position however the role of NICE doesn't have to be torn down in a partly or wholly privatised system.

5) Single-Employer. On the specific issue, yes nurses and consultants are paid less. As far as consultants are concerned this is definitely one reason why there are not enough of them. I think the same is probably true of nurses. Cost again, and the lie of the free NHS. Should people pay more? Well, I'd say that it is quite possible that to have the kind of health service the politicians keep offering us then perhaps we need to pay more. There is also one counter-problem though that I wrote about previously, and which I will throw Andy's way, since I am honsetly interested in seeing what he thinks about it.

The Treasury: The home of the control-freaks, headed by chief control himself Gordon Brown. This is the part of whitehall that makes, among others, the MoD pay £75 for a £5 padlock. The history of centralised government in Britain has come down to the Treasury and its forebears. The development of our governmental structures was nearly entirely the result of taxing more efficiently and perniciously. And the Treasury is wroth to return any of its power or privileges. The Foundation Trusts are a case in point - they were complaining of Treasury red-tape. Now, if some way were found to deal with the Treasury (and I think it is the Treasury, not Gordon Brown that is responsible) then perhaps real change for the better could result. I am, however, not holding my breath.

As a side-note, I keep harping on about this business of a free NHS. One reason why I'd like a more privatised system is so that people would be able to see what it costs them, and then they would be able to make a decisino whether it was worht it. This already works, more or less, for eyes and teeth. Of course, you do that and there are some people who will not invest in their health, and who will then suffer for that down the line. Just the same as some people do not save enough for old age. It's personal responsibility, and that is something that I do not think this government, or most other parties, want us to retain. The NHS teaches dependency, and that I think is extremely unhealthy.

Of course, I must admit that I personally have had two very unsatisfactory experiences with the NHS (one of which is continuing), and the experience of my family as a whole is a very mixed bag. I am prejudiced against the institution as a whole. Saying that, and since I've been generally negative let me say loud and clear one programme of the NHS that has my full support: NHS Direct. I've used the service once, and it was a very positive experience. The same is true of others I know that know about it - it's surprising still how many people don't know of its existence.

Sorry for being typically roundabout.

A Rumsfeld/Bush thought

Greyhawk over at The Mudville Gazette writes:

I don't think there's ever been another SecDef that meant as much to the troops as Rumsfeld, there's an unprecedented bond between the man and the troops. It stems from mutual respect, grows from the real feeling of brotherhood of war that most military members feel at this time in history, and is strengthened by the us against them mentality that the media is fueling with their war on our boss.

All the criticism of Rumsfeld recently did call to mind a rather bizarre thought - that the relationship between Rumsfeld/Bush, the military, and the media is not completely dissimilar to the situation that prevailed in the mid-90s AD in Rome with Domitian, Trajan, the Roman Army, and the senatorial class. Of course, its not completely apt - the US happens to be a democracy for one thing, and I rather doubt George Bush is either going to embark on a reign of terror or be killed by his wife (though I guess some of the more loony of his critics might actually believe in the reign of terror).

Anyway, the basic situation was that Domitian, although justly hated by the senatorial classes (he did kill off quite a number of them) had the support of the army. A very real support - he campaigned with them and won there respect. After the initial euphoria of his murder the senatorial class suddenly realise that they have to appease the army jolly quickly otherwise they were all, in every sense of the phrase, dead meat. So they basically make the general, Trajan, heir to the Empire (he inherits two years later). Trajan is prepared to let the name of Domitian be blackened for ever, but actually starts to transform the Empire from what is known as the Principate to the Dominate. Esssentially he is far more autocratic and despotic than what went before, more prone to military ventures, more willing to lessen the power and influence of the senators by focusing on provincials and lesser men - indeed he himself is not from their set. As, in a way, Domitian wasn't, being the son of man who had been emperor, but just a hick from an Appenine stick.

There are similarities there, amusing ones when you think about it. The only think I'm trying to work out in the parellel is who plays the part of Hadrian. Condi Rice?

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