Monday, March 31, 2008

Foam, Sweet Foam

The issue that originally inspired me to take up blogging continues, with glacial speed, to play out.

To summarise for those who haven't followed the case , the Ministry of Defence have been somewhere between stupid, mad and criminally negligent in not fitting anti-explosive foam to the fuel tanks of Hercules planes. These planes fly low over warzones and if your fuel tanks are just a metal casing full of aviation fuel, there is a chance that anyone with a grudge and a gun on the ground could bring you and your plane down in fireball. This is exactly what happened in January 2005 with the loss of 10 lives.

The latest news is that today an inquest into these unnecessary deaths was kicked off by the Wiltshire Coroner.

Now, there's every chance this inquest will be somewhat muted, because the MoD has been attempting in the High Court to ban coroners from using the term "serious failings" to describe the MoD's farcical oversights. I'm pretty sure they would probably prefer that I not use the phrase "farcical oversight", however appropriate it seems to be. Or even "penny-pinching, bureaucratic bumbling" - they probably wouldn't like that either. One former squadron commander has described the situation as "criminally insane". They definitely wouldn't like that.

The Americans have had this Explosive-suppressant foam (ESF) since the Vietnam war in the 1960s. Shortly after the British crash (January 2005, remember) a military Board of Inquiry recommended that the foam be fitted. As at the start of this month (March 2008), only 7 out of 48 aircraft have actually had this work done.

Now, I'm sure there are logistical reasons connected with the actions in Afghanistan and Iraq that might delay the work, but that's hardly the point. British lives have been put in unnecessary danger over forty-odd years and rather than blame the various governments of both parties that have had held the power to do something about it over that period, I choose to blame the current government.

Why ? Because the ten casualties mean that they cannot pretend that the issue does not exist, and yet they concentrate their energy on bringing legal action to moderate the language of the coroners.

Friday, March 28, 2008

And I'm Feeling Good

The Eurofighter Typhoon is a phenomenal fighter plane. It is made of futuristic light-weight materials, and is powered by two Rolls Royce engines giving a staggering 20,000 pounds of thrust. It's controlled to an unprecedented extent by computers allowing it to make turns no unaided human could make. You may have seen its party-piece on "Top Gear", racing Richard Hammond in a Bugatti Veyron

My favourite part from this footage is the lazy weightless flick that turns it from a climbing rocket into a falling stone in half a heartbeat. You feel the pilot could throw it around the sky like ... like ... er ...

Well, the only thing that comes to mind is "Like Nina Simone singing 'Feeling Good".

I drove down to London and back today, which took around 8 hours, so I had plenty of time to listen to music in my car. I don't drive a Bugatti Veyron, unfortunately - I still have the Spanish diesel that I unfairly slagged off last year. It's still running fine, nearly 100,000 miles into its life, and it cost me little enough , so I shouldn't be so ungrateful.

The weather was pretty miserable and I was tired, but I was mentally and emotionally lifted up by Nina Simone's amazing piece of Powerful, Black, Feminine vocal acrobatics. Gravity isn't an issue as she throws her voice all over the sky, ignoring the conventions of beats and bars and putting the notes where she knows they damn well belong.

Just as well I was alone in car - I must have played it twenty consecutive times.

My other discovery was "She's My Man" by Scissor Sisters. It's a track I've heard before on the second album, but it never struck me before. Perfect music for tired drivers in the rain closing in on home after a long day on the road.

I've seen the song described as a "joyous glam-rock-disco shakedown" and I can't improve on that for a description. Wonderfully deranged lyrics too.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

No "fun" in "fundamentalist", but plenty of "mental"

I watched the controversial film Fitna tonight on the Internet, and it was an interesting 16 minutes to be sure. Over-18s with strong stomach only, please.

The first section is a stunning montage of the worst excesses of Islamic fundamentalism. You've probably seem most of the pictures before, but having them all in one place in such a short space of time is overwhelming. Twin Towers, Madrid bomb, London bomb. Mad-eyed mullahs preaching death and damnation. A young girl, practically a baby, parroting the hateful description of Jews that her parents have drubbed into her.

It's an unbalanced hack-job on a whole religion, showing the lunatic fringe and all their works, and implying that that's pretty typical Muslim behaviour.

Then a middle section to the film is all tabloid headlines screaming about the Muslim Menace including an comical picture-postcard "Welcome to Holland" which had views of five different mosques dominating the skyline.

Again, well within the normal range of right-wing paranoia. I've seen worse in any given copy of the "Daily Telegraph".

But then in the last minute, just as I was thinking "What's all the fuss about?", he puts the boot in.

A brief image of an old-style round cartoon bomb with fuse and what you just hoped wasn't a picture of the prophet Mohammed on it (but probably was).

Then a picture of someone about to tear a page out of the Koran, then darkness and the sound of a page being torn. The caption claims that the sound was in fact that of a page out of a telephone directory being torn, but invited Muslims themselves to tear out the offensive passages from the Koran that gave the killers their motivation.

There is a case to be made against extreme Islamic terrorists, but this film wasn't it. And as the film went on he increasingly couldn't resist the temptation to tar hundreds of millions of people with the same brush and then finally to grievously insult them all.

In short, it became a Party Political Broadcast for the Fascist Party.

I'm somewhat reminded of the film "Doctor Strangelove" where the not-so-ex ex-Nazi scientist tries so hard to physically stop himself from doing the Nazi salute, but after some time he just can't resist.

UPDATE 28th March 2008 - As pointed out by Her Maggis in the comments, the people at LiveLeak have pulled the film from their servers after receiving entirely predictable threats. Google have a copy if you still care. Personally I wouldn't bother. The way I look at it, I, as a service to my readers, wasted 16 minutes of my life watching it so that you wouldn't have to.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Many Happy Reincarnations.

I got the usual round-robin email about how beastly the Chinese government are in Tibet from an old Uni friend of mine. I deleted it without hardly a thought.

The problem is, it's too big, too far away and too divorced from my own experience to really get me. I know the Chinese dominate that area in a way Stalin would have approved of, but are they really any worse than Mugabe or one of the less publicised Arab dictators ? There's so much inhumanity in the world, that people with good intention keep getting side-tracked, find it hard to focus. Why pick on the Chinese and leave other baddies in peace ?

Watching the brave demonstrators in Greece, I was inspired to find out some more, and I think I've cracked it. Basically you need to make it small and personal, otherwise it's just noise.

Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan writer whose poetry was banned by the Chinese authorities, so she turned to blogging to get her message across. She blogged on many things that were probably upsetting to the Chinese authorities (HIV/AIDS in Tibet, the controversial Tibet railway, and the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution) but it was probably the posting that included a photo of the Dalai Lama and a poem wishing him a happy birthday that caused the trouble.

The police in the city of Mingyang, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, ordered a Tibetan website on 7 December to eliminate any reference to her writings. She and her husband have been under house-arrest since March 10th for I-know-not-what.

Read that again, and shudder - her opinions are first stopped, then her liberty is removed for no good reason and then an attempt to made to make it as though she never existed.

I think she would have been tickled by the recent pronouncement that Tibetan lamas (religious leaders, not goats) may not reincarnate without official permission. You wonder what kind of paperwork would be appropriate.

Anyway, here's a photo of the Dalai Lama.

Happy Birthday, mate. Many happy reincarnations.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?

OK, so you're stuck on the Guardian's Easter prize crossword - Araucaria is kicking your flabby mind like it was Bolton Wanderers and Araucaria was any other team in the Premiership. So you've come to the internet to find help.

There's still time to change your mind - you don't have to read the next bit - just go have a lie down with a damp flannel over your brow, make a cup of tea and try again.

Still give up ?

OK - the title of the crossword is "The Shakespearean Criterion's Springtime Crossword"

Anyone's who has done a few thousand crosswords knows that another word for a Criterion is a Touchstone - and this is particularly Shakespearean, because Touchstone is the fool in "As You Like It".

Touchstone has a marvellous riff on the nature of lying during the play that runs as follows :-

"O, sir, we quarrel in print by the book, as you have books for good manners: I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort courteous; the second, the Quip modest; the third, the Reply churlish; the fourth, the Reproof valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with circumstance; the seventh, the Lie direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too with an 'If'. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel; but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an 'If', as: 'If you said so, then I said so;' and they shook hands, and swore brothers. Your 'If' is the only peace-maker;—much virtue in 'If.'"
Now fill in the blanks, remove the damp cloth, make some really hot tea and concentrate - I'm not going to do it all for you - I am on holiday after all.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Eff One

Dominic Coles, BBC Sport Director of Sport Rights, said: "The biggest motorsporting event in the world is returning home after 12 years. We were delighted when Bernie Ecclestone approached us about the return of F1 to the BBC. Formula One is a crown jewel of sports broadcasting, so to bring the rights back to their traditional home from 2009 is tremendously exciting."

I have a few issues with that statement :-

(1) Formula 1 is not a sport. No, really - it isn't. It's a set of no-personality millionaires driving the cars of even-less personality billionaires.

(2) "Coming home" ? Who cares which channel shows the thing? Races last half the day with hours between incidents, so you'd hardly notice the commercial breaks.

(3) Just how much of my license fee is going on this boondoggle ? And what are the BBC going to have to drop to pay for it?

Hope they bring back the Fleetwood Mac theme tune though - great track.

Not at all relevant to the theme, but on the BBC's "Today" programme this morning there was an amazing item about Shirley Collins who in 1959 went down to Mississippi with music archivist Alan Lomax in a rented Buick and recorded whatever the people there happened to be singing.

They played a track by one of their discoveries, Mississippi Fred McDowell - do yourself a favour and listen here. This guy just is so effortlessly and naturally musical, and even a fat white middle-class Brit in a motorway tailback was moved.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


1. And it came to pass that on his day day of rest, his mate Flit phoned Stan and asked what he thought about the Credit Crunch that had brought low the mighty Bear Stearns and the less mighty and always slightly-dodgy Northern Rock.

2. For Flit, despite being abundantly wise in the Arts and Sciences, had not a Scooby about the ways of Mammon. A bit of a blooming liability on Sports Trivia too, but we'll let that pass.

3. Stan told her to wait a while, put on a flowing robe, grabbed a wooden staff, grew a long beard and went up into hills, from where he addressed her (and anyone else within earshot) during an electrical storm from high atop the mountain.

4. Vanity ! All is vanity ! A wave is coming that will sweep all before it and not even the worthy will escape unscathed. As the mighty Scottish prophet, Private Frazer said "We're all doooooo-med. Doomed I tell you."

5. For the world we live in is held together by money and for the last fifteen years or so the greatest pyramid scheme ever has held sway.

6. Debt has been bought and sold, sliced and diced, rebranded and exported to the point where no-one knows who will end up holding the baby when a credit card debt or a mortgage goes into default.

7. Imagine sub-prime debt as contaminated meat that has been sent forth into the world to all the pie makers in the world. Some pie-makers use only the cheapest nastiest meat available and they are going to fold almost immediately in a sea of vomit and legal action.

8. But even the fancy pie makers will get hurt. For there is no way to reassure the public that there is no bad meat in their pies.

9. Just like the fancy pie makers, so the ordinary boring banks who didn't get involved too much in Commoditised Debt Obligations will be dragged onto the rocks by the coming storm.

10. And when banks are weak, there is no lending. And without lending, many companies will fall. And most companies are leveraged to the hilt, for if they were not, then the Private Equity companies would Dawn Raid them and make sure they blooming well were.

11. And when companies cannot borrow they tend to shrink and so fewer people are in work and more people can't pay their mortgages. And so it goes forth, begetting misery unto the fourth generation.

12. Flit was sore afraid by this and asked whether she would be affected because she worked for the government. And Stan held up his wooden staff to the storm and shouted "When the economy suffers, government revenues fall. And when even governments find it hard to borrow they need to slash costs. And when a government has a choice between Health and Entertainment, they are likely to choose Health no matter whether you think they have committed funds to your organisation for the next five years or so."

13. And before Stan took himself off to dry out his gown and rest his voice and eat chocolate cake, he conjured up the nightmare scenario.

14. "Imagine one of the really big banks getting into trouble - one that's so big that bailing it out would bankrupt a country. It's been a while since we've been up-close to a bankrupt country. Starving people, extreme politics, militarism. Think pre-war Germany, think Zimbabwe. And now you've got a whole set of domino effects to consider.

15. And that's not the worst of it. Imagine one of the biggest banks falling - some of these banks, if they were countries would be part of the G8. Not even Stan has the wit to predict what would happen if one of those bad boys were to go down.

16. But that's more a historian like Flit's territory than that of an enthusiastic amateur Financial Doomsayer. In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Thank goodness for chocolate cake.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I was going to blog at length on Lord Goldsmith’s report that pupils should take an Oath of Allegiance when they leave school. Fortunately Mark Steel did it much better than I ever could in today’s Independent. Read his bit and you can catch up me further down the page…

… no, not here – keep going down …

…. even further down ….

… here it is …

Samuel Johnson said “Patriotism is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel”. It’s certainly where politicians turn when they need a distraction and don’t have enough money to give tax cuts.

How is it that someone as clever Lord Goldsmith could think that forcing kids to chant empty words in unison can cure the problems we have in our society? It’s magical thinking : “Izzy Wizzy – Let’s Get Busy ! Kazaam ! Abracadabra !” Problem solved.

And as a fetish object that we should pledge ourselves to, the Queen is far from ideal. The conduct of the House of Windsor has been less than worship-worthy over the years and there’s every likelihood that some of her successors will be even less suitable.

Plus, if you happen not to be a member of the Church of England, your allegiance is likely to be at best shared between the Queen and the leader of your church.

Personally, none of my activities have ever been remotely against the interests of my country and I can’t think that’s likely to change in future. Even if I were considering “Arson in the Queen’s Dockyards” or something equally treasonous, I doubt that an Oath of Allegiance would alter my decision.

The only reason I can think of for greater Patriotism is that it might improve our ability to cope in the event of War. Unfortunately greater Patriotism seems to make Wars more likely, so let’s not take the risk.

Many people are doing many things to help society, the environment and their country. I think the government should encourage people to DO something and to worry less about forcing people to SAY something.

Vote Stan.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Luther on the Loo Fer Ages

At first glance I don't have a lot in common with a German Monk from half a millennium ago.

But when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the front door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg, surely in addition to inventing Protestantism, he was also blogging. I know the technology is somewhat different now, but the intention was similar - to say what he wanted to say in the way he wanted to say it without any filtering or censorship or delay.

Also his style of writing in the Theses is very Bloggish - it's not scholarly, dry stuff - it's as opinionated as all get-out.

He was an absolutely fascinating man who not only told his truth to Power, but also had six kids with a nun that he smuggled out of a convent in a herring barrel. He was unfortunately also one of history's worst anti-Semites with unfashionable opinions on feminism and science not even held within the BNP today (and certainly not condoned by me):-

Exhibit 1 : "The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes."

Exhibit 2 : "If I had to baptise a Jew, I would take him to the bridge of the Elbe, hang a stone around his neck and push him over with the words 'I baptise thee in the name of Abraham'."

Exhibit 3 : Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb, are men in whom the devils have established themselves: and all the physicians who heal these infirmities, as though they proceeded from natural causes, are ignorant blockheads.
Archaeologists think they may have found his toilet recently. Anyone offended by the quotations above would probably be comforted to know that he didn't have a pain-free bowel movement for much of his life and spent so much time with constipation that it's very likely that many of his ideas came to him while straining on the lavvy.

The reason I mention Luther is that his ideas on Church Reform are still having repercussions fifteen generations later - the latest twist being that he's likely to be rehabilitated by the current Pope who accepts that he didn't mean to bring stuff crashing down, but only wanted to raise issues.

The Catholic Church should be congratulated - they have also recently pardoned Galileo Galilei (died 1642), so it seems they are well on their way to dragging themselves into the 17th century.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Mighty Quin(ine)

Men fall into two groups where seeking medical help is concerned.

The first group are convinced that every cough, sprain, strain, lump or bump is evidence of a combination of Lou Gehrig’s syndrome, Ebola virus and BSE. These people will book doctor’s appointments in advance for every Monday afternoon, and ring up and cancel in the unlikely event they feel OK on a particular Monday morning.

The second group, if they were hit in the head with an axe actually outside the medical centre, still wouldn’t seek help. They’d walk home and have an aspirin and a bit of a lie down (with the axe still firmly embedded in their skull).

I was certainly a fully paid-up member of the second group, but while I was ‘resting’ between jobs I haven’t been able to use work as an excuse for not getting seen to.

My issue has been night cramps. Most evenings, my calves would tend to tighten up and go into spasm. Which meant I had to beg my family to pummel my legs until the tension let go. Which they both found really quite amusing.

I’ve suffered with this for years, but it’s one of those things that you just get used to. Five minutes with the doctor and she had me down for blood tests and gave me something that’s stopped the pain.

Quinine, of all things. It cures malaria, but it has a side-effect is that it stop shivers, shakes and spasms. Actually, it more likely to be the other way round. It’s an extract from a tree bark (like aspirin) and was discovered by ancient Peruvians that it stopped them shivering when they were on cold hunts.

It’s fairly well known that it’s in Tonic Water, but did you know it was in Irn Bru too? They have less than 0.5% of the concentration that would do you any good though, especially if you put gin in the tonic or vodka in the Irn Bru.

It’s one of those little things that changed history. Would there have been a British Empire without a malaria cure?

Quinine: drug of imperialist oppression.

And blooming good in a cocktail.

Although I’m a little concerned my urine might now glow – quinine fluoresces even without UV light (see pic).

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Gavin and Stacey

BBC2 played a blinder last night by showing the first series of "Gavin and Stacey" back-to-back. I missed it the first time around - mainly I guess because it was described as a "Romantic Comedy".

Now, I have nothing at all against either Romance or Comedy - the world needs more of both of these - but when you put the two together you usually end up with the kind of braindead chick-flick mush that infests suburban multiplex cinemas.

This however succeeds where the usual Hugh Grant romcomathon fails for a number of reasons :-
  • Likeable characters
  • Clever genuinely funny dialogue
  • A number of excellent acting performances
  • No Hugh Grant
You are warned that there is an almost total absence of plot and that the humour is subtle to the point where some may not even see it, but for me it was an amazing achievement - funny, moving and rude.

There is to be a new series on BBC3 this month and judging by the preview clips online, it's going to be well worth watching.