Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Signal failure

It's a common belief among leftist groups in Britain that if they spend enough time slagging off America, they don't have to offer any constructive ideas to help their own country. This explains why, when I checked the web site of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union yesterday to find out whether a threatened Tube strike was going ahead, I didn't see any information about whether I would be able to get to class on Thursday. Instead, I saw a poll asking, 'Should the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay be closed?' Clearly, once the RMT knows the will of its members, it's going to use its clout with the Bush Administration -- which ranks only slightly behind that of, say, the American Orchid Society.

Much as I despise Gitmo, I'm tempted to vote 'no' on this poll just to see if such heresy reduces the union's site to a jumble of code as creaky and juddering as the trains its members have to drive.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Don Knotts RIP

If the West Virginia flag isn't at half staff, it should be.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Topping stuff

One of the first pages I turn to in The Economist is the obituary. Although the paper gives the expected attention to deceased presidents and Nobel-Prize winners, it's just as likely to celebrate lesser-known but fascinating lives that I might never have known about otherwise. Such is the case with this week's obituary of Robert Rich, the inventor of frozen non-dairy topping. (He later expanded into other dairy substitutes -- his name provided the 'Rich' in Coffee Rich --and the company he founded is still going.) In addition to telling the surprisingly fraught history of Rich's invention -- Ford refused to provide the equipment to make it because 'they sold a lot of tractors to dairy farmers' -- the article informed me of the existence of the Frozen Food Hall of Fame, which is apparently maintained by the 'Distinguished Order of Zerocrats'.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Smoke gets in your eyes

Chris got me The Rough Guide to Frank Sinatra for Valentine's Day. Leafing through the Albums section, I was struck by how variable the cover art was, especially in the '40s and '50s. The covers range from images that are still cool and evocative today to those that are downright embarrassing. After studying them, I've been able to determine a general rule: The covers that show Sinatra with a cigarette are good, whereas those where he's fagless are, well, not. Judge for yourself:

Strangely, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely won a Grammy for best cover design, which goes to show how tastes can change.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Economist on Mohammed cartoons

“I DISAGREE with what you say and even if you are threatened with death I will not defend very strongly your right to say it.” That, with apologies to Voltaire, seems to have been the initial pathetic response of some western governments to the republication by many European newspapers of several cartoons of Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper in September.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Swing sets for grown-ups

Now this is a gym I wouldn't mind visiting. I wonder if they have those teeter-totter swings?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

'Lost world' found in Indonesia

Exciting news from The Washington Post:

Scientists exploring an isolated jungle in one of Indonesia's most remote provinces discovered dozens of new species of frogs, butterflies and plants _ as well as mammals hunted to near extinction elsewhere, members of the expedition said Tuesday.

The team also found wildlife that were remarkably unafraid of humans during its rapid survey of the Foja Mountains, an area in eastern Indonesia's Papua province with more than two million acres of old growth tropical forest, said Bruce Beehler, a co-leader of the monthlong trip.

Two Long-beaked Echidnas, a primitive egg-laying mammal, simply allowed scientists to pick them up and bring them back to their camp to be studied, he said.

The December expedition to Papua on the western side of New Guinea island was organized by the U.S.-based environmental organization Conservation International and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

Papua, the scene of a decades-long separatist rebellion that has killed an estimated 100,000 people, is one of Indonesia's most remote provinces, geographically and politically, and access by foreigners is tightly restricted.

The 11-member team of U.S., Indonesian and Australian scientists needed six permits before they could legally fly by helicopter to an open, boggy lakebed surrounded by forests near the range's western summit.

The scientists said they discovered 20 frog species _ including a tiny microhylid frog less than a half inch long _ four new butterfly species and at least five new types of palms.

One of the most remarkable discoveries was the Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo, an arboreal jungle-dweller new for Indonesia and previously thought to have been hunted to near extinction, and a new honeyeater bird, which has a bright orange face-patch with a pendant wattle under each eye, Beehler said.

The scientists also took the first known photographs of Berlepsch's Six-wired Bird of Paradise, a bird described by hunters in New Guinea in the 19th century and named for the wires that extend from its head in place of a crest.

One of the reasons for the rain forest's isolation, Beehler said, was that only a few hundred people live in the region and game in the mountain's foothills is so abundant that they had no reason to venture into the jungle's interior.

There did not appear to be any immediate conservation threat to the area, which has the status of a wildlife sanctuary, he said.

"No logging permits are given to this area, there is no transport system _ not a single road," Beehler said.

"But clearly with time everything is a threat. In the next few decades there will be strong demands, especially if you think of the timber needs of nearby countries like China and Japan. They will be very hungry for logs."

It's amazing that discoveries like this are still being made today; it makes me think about how much more there must be that we don't yet know about. I just hope that this unique ecosystem will be treated better by humans than previously discovered ones have.

Bruce Beehler has published a
first-person account of the trip in The Independent, and the paper's main article has more details on the species his team found. The BBC has lots of pictures of the new discoveries. Conservation International's site is here; this seems to be the Indonesian Institute of Sciences' site, but it's in Indonesian only.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Given, no. Spilt, yes

This morning's Today programme had an interview with a student leader from Birmingham University, whose organisation is protesting the National Blood Service's policy on gay donors. (You can hear it here for the next few days; the link goes to a .ram file.) Under the current rules, no man who has ever had sex with another man is permitted to give blood. I agree that this rule should be reviewed, not because it violates anyone's 'right' to give blood -- there is no such right -- but because it keeps out a lot of potential donors who don't really pose a serious HIV risk.

The student interviewed on the Today programme, however, didn't use that argument, or any other logical argument. Instead, he told an anecdote that had my bullshit detector clanging:

The way I came to find out about this was because a friend of mine went to give blood with their dad, and they weren't out at the time, and, uh, out to their parents, and they realised that they couldn't give blood, and they didn't realise how they could tell, you know, hadn't told their parents beforehand, this really wasn't the time, in the queue to give blood, and so they had to, when they saw the needle, pretend to faint, which meant they ended up hitting their head on a bed and, and actually knocking themselves out. Which is, you know, a real risk for them.

I give blood myself, and I find this story highly unlikely. The Blood Service's procedure is to interview you privately at every appointment. In a curtained booth, a nurse goes through each item on the health questionnaire and asks you to confirm your answer. They do this precisely because they realise you might have had someone looking over your shoulder when you filled it out. All the student had to do was to tell the nurse he was gay. The information would never have gone beyond the interview booth -- and since the nurse tests your iron levels at the same time as the interview, the student could have told his father he couldn't donate because his iron was too low. In short, if the donation session was run properly, there was no way the homophobic tyranny of Billy Blood Drop could have forced this guy to fall down and get an owie.

So what does the anecdote prove? Well, it could prove that someone is lying or mistaken. It could prove that a particular blood donation session was run without due regard for privacy. It could prove that the student was naive and panicked, or that he had a martyr complex and set out to make things difficult for himself. The one thing it doesn't prove is that gay men should be allowed to give blood. And considering that there are valid arguments to support the idea that they should, I'm baffled that the students chose to rely on this feeble appeal to pity.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

Warning: This post contains serious spoilers for both the film and the story. Enjoy some nice pictures from the Dover Sampler while those affected leave the post.

I find cinemas -- with the possible exception of the National Film Theatre -- to be intensely depressing, so I have to have a much stronger than usual interest in a film before I will venture into one. Fortunately, I was willing to do so for Brokeback Mountain. I read Annie Proulx's story a few months ago (thanks to Language Hat, though sadly his link no longer works), and consider it to be one of the best short stories I've read from the past few decades. I wondered whether the film could do it justice.

For the most part, I think it does. The film necessarily had to portray events that were only reported in dialogue in the story, and invent new ones for periods that the story passed over in silence, but this was done in a way that preserved the melancholy and reflective tone of Proulx's story. I was especially curious about how the movie would handle the ambiguity surrounding Jack's death; the problem was solved rather elegantly with a brief flashback that could have been either imagination or reality.

The one part of the movie that didn't work for me was the sub-plot about Ennis's elder daughter. It was an invention of the screenwriters -- in the story, Ennis doesn't see his daughters again after the Thanksgiving confrontation with his ex-wife -- and I got the impression that they'd added it to mitigate Proulx's utterly bleak ending with very faint ray of hope. In the film's closing scene, Ennis's daughter visits to invite him to her wedding; after first saying he will be too busy with work, he changes his mind and agrees to come. After his daughter leaves, he puts her sweater in his closet, looks at the two shirts and postcard he has hung inside the door and says with tears in his eyes, 'Jack, I swear --' He doesn't finish the sentence, but it seems he's vowing not to pass up any more chances for human closeness in his life.

Ennis delivers the same line in Proulx's story, but the setting and the effect are very different. When he hangs the shirts and postcard, he is utterly alone. He begins to cry, perhaps for the first time since Jack's death. And then he says, 'Jack, I swear --' and stops, because he realises there's nothing he can swear any more. In the film, the line is moving; in the story, it's devastating.

Well, Hollywood can never resist a happy ending, and this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent film. Not only was it worth entering a cinema, it was worth the bus journey to Watford (and believe me, that's saying a lot).

Friday, February 03, 2006

Happy Day of Anger!

Sorry for the gap in posts; we've been busy with a number of projects both on- and offline. While you're waiting, have a look at these cartoons, and think about how important it is that you still can.

L'Ombre de l'Olivier.)