Archive for May 2007

Everything’s Beachy

May 24, 2007

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I’ve been meaning to dedicate a little post to Fraser’s 30th birthday party, but haven’t quite found the time. Or rather I have, but have chosen to spend it on other things.

I’ll recapitulate. You’ll remember the context of my ill-fated stumble into that Morningside barber last week: I was trying to find something suitably Hawaiian / Caribbean to wear to Fraser’s do, but wasn’t having any luck. One of my fellow party-goers had contacted the man himself in order to get the precise detail of costume requirements, and was told ‘Hawaiian…Caribbean…it’s all the same! Girls in bikini’s was my thinking’.

Anyway, we were eventually organised. Ross and Mrs H both voiced some misgivings about my wearing shorts; as a concession to Mrs H, I agreed to wear jeans on top (and thus look like I was wearing a nappy) until I got there. To quiet Ross’s concerns, I assured him that these particular shorts were possessed of an adequate internal netting to prevent any embarrassing relevations during the evening. So all was well.

Bidding fare-thee-well to Mrs H, Ross and I headed West. After a protracted detour around the outskirts of Glasgow (note: when on the M8, exits can appear on the right) we made our way down Sauchiehall Street, and parked up a dark side street. As I tried to free myself from my jeans in as subtle a manner as possible, Hugh Grant came inexpicably to mind.

We negotiated the tempestuous West Coast conditions (for which we were more-or-less as ill-dressed as it is possible to be) and found ourselves inside the venue. There was a noticeable lack of bikini wearing going on (amongst the ladies at least) but Fraser didn’t seem too disappointed. He was on especially good form having experimented with fake tan to preposterous, trans-racial excess.

A couple of photos should suffice:

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Fire Alarm

May 17, 2007

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 I had a most eventful lunch hour yesterday. I found myself scouring the Morningside charity shops for suitably grotesque beach-wear for a fancy dress party. In the process, I accidently got a Turkish haircut. Let me explain.

Mrs H recently made it known that it was time for another haircut. Regular blogue readers will know that this is the third haircut I have obtained since records began. On this occasion, I was intending to make my way down Morningside Road, browsing each and every charity shop, until I ended up at my barber of choice. I think it’s called ‘The Barber Shop’, or something similarly boring (but accurate).

Anyway, my charity shopping had been fruitless, and I passed an unobtrusive little barbers about half way down on the left. There was no queue, so I thought I’d pop in, knowing that my lunch hour had already stretched to epic proportions. I noticed a poster advertising the ‘hot shave’, on which a cartoon man beamed reassuringly at me from behind a cloud of facial foam. Yes, I thought, this will be alright.

My barber-cum-assailant entered stage left, and we were in business. He was a portly, pleasant-enough-looking chap of middle eastern appearance, and we were soon able to come to some mutual understanding about my requirements.

He set about the task with energetic brio, and several minutes later I was left with what I thought was an acceptable haircut. Of a quality in proportion to the six-pound price tag, anyway.

It was only then that things took an unusual turn. My attention had wandered slightly, but I suddenly realised that the barber was holding what looked like a length of twisted coathanger with a blob of wax on the end. With mild curiosity, I wondered what he intended to do with it. He dunked it into a bottle of clear liquid. Was he sterilising it? And for what purpose? Into which of my orifices did he intend to insert it? Imagine my alarm when he took a cigarette lighter to the end of said coathanger (which, I now realise, had been dipped in lighter fluid) and set the thing alight.

A number of things pass through your mind when a barber is unexpectedly standing before you with a flaming torch in hand. Is he experimenting with some moody lighting for his shop? Is he planning to start a bonfire? And all the while you’re wondering what you might do should he start attacking you with it.

Which he did, incidently. My ears were the primary target, and as he ran his flame over my beloved lugs, I was acutely aware of two competing social pressures. How does one balance their desire to remain composed in public with their desire not to have a conflagration where where their head once stood? It’s tricky.

The trauma was soon over, and I left the shop as if nothing untoward had happened. I can only assume that this memorable fire-ear conjunction was an attempt to get rid of that endearing downy fluff on my ears, which I’m afraid to say, is still there. Perhaps I should go back and let him have another go.

Let the People Decide

May 16, 2007

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 I’ve been thinking about the electoral process recently. This post comes a little belatedly, but might give me something to refer back to if there’s ever another election. Which, I’m assured, there will be one day.

By now, you’ll know all about the proportion of spoiled ballot papers. 7% of would-be voters couldn’t quite organise two perpendicular, intersected lines within an appropriate square space on a sheet of paper. My curiosity is piqued: is it that they don’t understand the requirements of the voting process? Or have they deliberately spoiled their ballot papers? It seems a silly thing to do, given that one has made the trip to the polling station. Perhaps they think their democratic voice would be put to better use by scrawling some message on their form. That’s a possibility: the smallest of spanners thrown into the political works, so small in fact that it makes no difference whatsoever. It’s certainly more restrained than going to a polling station and smashing up the place, as one chap did.

Both courses of action (the anarchic scrawl and the smashing up) occurred to me as I stood in the hastily erected confines of my polling booth. But Mrs H was in the next booth, and kept rubbernecking into mine to see how I was getting on, so I thought I’d play it safe.

Anyway, back to the 7%. How good a government are we likely to get if 7% of those deciding it cannot be trusted to fill in a voting form properly? Surely it’s only pure luck that these people, by their own ineptitude, removed themselves from the voter pool?

I had tremendous difficulty in choosing who to vote for. A lot of the parties are keen on the same things. Very few, for example, want a rubbish NHS or education system. A lot of them make the same promises as each other. Who’s to say which ones will be kept and which ones will be forgotten? Of course, there’s the odd flagship issue that distinguishes parties; what to do about Iraq, for instance, or whether Scotland should be its own country or not. My problem, though, is that I don’t know enough about any of these things to know what’s best. Would independence be better or worse for Scotland in the long run? Some say yes, some say no. And if people who are supposed to know about these things can’t agree, how am I supposed to make up my mind?

In practice, I suspect people often vote for a party or candidate on the basis of snazzy leaflets, an appealing face, or because their favourite colour is red (for labour voters) or blue (for Tory voters). Not only is the process reduced to a popularity contest, but we’re also giving the nod of approval to the most extravagant expenditure for publicity. It all ends up in the recycling when it’s all over, except the Green Party leaflet, which I just threw into someone’s garden.

Given that there are probably quite a few among the electorate who know at least as little as me about these affairs, perhaps would-be voters should have to prove that they’ve been keeping abreast of current political affairs before they’re allowed to vote. A few multiple choice questions as they hand over their polling card should suffice. Uninformed opinions (like mine) are really no use to anyone.

So, who to vote for? Let’s think about what I want from my government. I certainly want public services to be improved, so I guess I’m all for increased public spending. But I don’t want to pay any more tax. I’m quite happy for others to pay more tax if necessary. That just about covers it, I think.

Is the idea to vote for what would benefits you most personally? That seems OK, since we might assume that others are doing the same, and thus that everyone’s interests are equally represented. Or should everyone be voting for what they think will be of most benefit to everyone? John Rawls talks about the ‘veil of ignorance’: when we’re trying to decide on which system of authority to have in place, the fairest thing might be to pretend that we have no idea how well off we are (financially, occupationally, intellectually) compared with others. If you’re top dog, it’s still a good idea to have a system that will accommodate you should you hit rock bottom. Life is a great wheel, and all that.

It’s all very confusing, and probably makes for quite a boring blog post, in retrospect. I suspect I will continue to use my vote as best I can. There was a time when I’d think someone was ignorant for not voting. But maybe they don’t vote because they know they’re ignorant, and don’t want to sully the voting process with their lack of substantive political knowledge. In which case, perhaps they’re onto something.

Anyone For Thirds?

May 11, 2007

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At the risk of becoming overly slanted towards the cinematic, I wondered whether I might share some opinions about the recently released Spider-man 3?

Warning: Spoilers 

The latest Spidermanian installment sees plenty for our intrepid hero to do. Firstly, he needs to evade a thumping at the hands of one-time pal Harry. Harry’s still miffed because he thinks Spider-man offed his dad, and has borrowed some of Pop’s hardware in the hope of doing Spidey a mischief. Luckily for our hero, Harry gets a knock on the bonce in the process, and thus forgets his grudge against his arachnine chum. And then remembers it again. What a to-do.

Naturally, there are two other ne’er-do-wells eager to see an end to Spider-man. One is Flint Marko, a criminal with a heart of gold. In a stunning (i.e. stupid) bit of revisionist plotting, it turns out that he was the one that killed Uncle Ben. As he tries to evade the police, Marko stumbles into a conveniently placed, mysteriously al fresco particle physics facility, where he is somehow imbued with the ability to turn into a pile of sand at a moment’s notice. Rather a useless skill, you might have thought. But in the right hands, it’s deadly.

I have the same problems with the Sandman as I had with the T-1000. How do all the little bits know their place in the overall arrangement? And how does the person constituted by the little bits retain an appearance quite unlike that of the contituent parts? But we mustn’t grumble.

My pal Ross has a T-shirt just like the Sandman’s. He swears that any likeness of his garments to those favoured by comic-book super-villains is purely coincidental. I do not believe him, and have made him thus aware.

Anyway, let’s not forget the third (yes, the third) villain of the piece. This one’s an alien life form, which latches onto Spider-man and assumes the form of a black Spider-man costume. Peter Parker, far from questioning the origins of this new suit, decides it looks a little better than the red one, and adopts it as his crime-fighting garment of choice. The alien then tries to posses him. Much hilarity ensues.

In order to enjoy this franchise, one is always required to suspend belief. When watching this third helping, it helps to remind oneself that the first and second ones were just as daft. If you’re going to synthesise a miniature sun, for example, you don’t really need to go to the trouble of inventing biomechanical arms with which to do it. A couple of really long sticks would probably do.

I really enjoyed this film. That’s not quite the same as saying it was any good. But then again, it was one of those films that didn’t need to be any good in order for me to enjoy it. Expectation can cloud the critical faculties somewhat. I’m not sure whether this is a bad thing or a good thing. Certainly, a sizable proportion of reviewers have enthusiastically poo-pooed Spider-man 3, but I’m sure that for the 140 minute duration, I was happier than any of them.

Driven to Distraction

May 8, 2007

I recently set out some views about the respective driving practices of men and women. Since writing about it, I have come to realise that the rot runs much deeper than I first believed. Is it just me, or are the roads choc-full of really bad drivers?

Now, I don’t mind the odd missed indication, or even those who accelerate when the lights change from green to amber. But some of the things we witness might make us question how on earth certain people were ever allowed to get in a car, never mind turn the key.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just another self-unaware ranting session. After all, nearly everyone thinks they’re a better driver than most, and that it’s other drivers who are to blame for the world’s ills. In fact, polls suggest that 80% of drivers think they are ‘better than average’. On the basis of statistics like these, people assume that most drivers over-estimate their abilities behind the wheel. However, there is another possibility: that 80% of drivers really are better than average, but that the average is dragged way down south by a small minority (say, 20%) of absolutely awful drivers. But at least they admit it.

When pootling around Edinburgh on four wheels,  one is liable to encounter these terrors of the tarmac. There are those, for example, that see the ‘lane system’ as a set of informal suggestions, rather than as measures designed to preserve life and limb. Having been blessed with the ability to plan more than five seconds ahead, I often find myself occupying a spot in the correct lane (for my purposes) only to find that someone in the adjoining lane has designs on exactly the same portion of space as I’m currently occupying. They proceed to mosey on over, without so much as a by-your-leave (even a quick signal would do). It’s not even as if they don’t see you. It’s almost as if their desire to be in the correct lane is greater than their desire to continue existing.

Did you read about that chap charged with causing death by dangerous driving the other day? He’d had a few tipples before he started his journey, but told police “I thought as long as you were wearing a seatbelt you were alright to have eight or nine pints.” He didn’t have a licence either, unsurprisingly. I imagine he would’ve stumbled at the theory test.

Anyway, this irksome train of thought led me to the Baddriving.com, a site which chronicles complaints about poor driving, and allows those afflicted with otherwise-unmanageable road-rage to let off a bit of steam. Here’s some of the photographic evidence from the site:

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Now, I’ve taken the liberty of obscuring the number-plate, since I know that certain ‘Logues readers are die-hards (you know who you are). I wouldn’t want to advocate tracking down the person responsible for this ‘Crap Parking’ and in order to give them a good biffing. However, if you are in any way aggrieved and are looking for an outlet, why not visit the website and Rate This Menace! You will see that a lot of the submissions to the site (including the one above) were made by ‘thegooddoctor’, who bears the dubious honour of being the ‘Most Easily Annoyed Member’ as well as sharing a nickname with the late Harold Shipman.

After having a little look around the site, I’ve had a slight change of heart. In retrospect, I’m not sure what’s worse: bad driving, or those who keep going on about it.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

May 7, 2007

Statistics. How would you even start to write a post about statistics? 

At the moment, I’m in the process of throwing together a doctoral thesis. Having gathered all the data, I’m now at the stage of putting it all in the one place in order to analyse it. Said analysis involves diving deep into the very shallow waters of my statistical knowledge. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

Did you hear about the three statisticians who went hunting? They spotted a deer in a clearing up ahead, and the first statistician took a shot at it, falling short by a good ten metres. The second statistician also took a shot, but he overshot by ten metres. The third statistician shouted ‘we got him!’

Look, I didn’t say it was very funny.

I don’t really mind data analysis. In fact, it can be rather jolly when all goes to plan. The trick is to stay within what you understand, even if that doesn’t give you much room. In fact, there’s probably only enough room to stand up. On one leg. But it will suffice.

I have two programs to help me. Good old Microsoft Excel and the dreaded Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). With Excel, your data can be made to look nice and be set out in a intuitive way. SPSS will do your statistical calculations for you, but won’t let you have any fun. Most of my day was spent trying to make Excel and SPSS play nicely and not fight. 

Even when I was elbow deep in my number-crunching exploits, I was able to spare a thought for my faithful blogue readers. Knowing that they’d take a keen interest, I romped on over to The Strip Generator, in order to construct a schematic account of the data analysis process.

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I was going to riddle this post with some amusing statistics courtesy of Google, but didn’t quite find the energy. However, I’m sure that at least 79.2% of you will have some statisical tit-bits that are interesting and with which you might entertain the rest of us.

Sunshine in Leith

May 2, 2007

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I had a very enjoyable cinematic experience last night. After work, I ambled down to Ocean Terminal in Leith to watch Sunshine, the new Danny Boyle sci-fi (yes, I know).

Warning: Spoilers 

To set the scene, a handful of boffins are blasted into space on a rather curious mission. Our sun, you see, has started to sputter a little bit, and looks to be in danger of going out. The aforementioned boffins need to detonate a bomb within our beloved star in order to get it going again. Quite a big bomb actually, the size of Manhattan. This is one situation in which a wee squirt of lighter fluid just won’t cut the mustard.

Here’s the rub, though. They’re on their way sunward when they pick up a distress signal from another ship charged with a similar mission, but presumed lost some seven years ago. Having never seen Alien, they decide that the best thing to do would be to pop on over in order to offer assistance. Sadly, their diversion means that they are now at a slightly different angle to the sun, and having forgotten to adjust their protective parasol accordingly, things start to get inhospitably warm. Fires start, things blow up.

They reach the other ship eventually, where they meet Captain Pinbacker, the lone survivor. Pinbacker is an object lesson in the perils of neglecting the SPF30, and a nutter to boot. Imagine a nude Freddy Krueger and you’re halfway there. He’s become a bit pro-extinction during his seven-year solitude, and doesn’t entirely agree that the sun should be reignited. He attempts to persuade our heroes to adopt his point of view, by killing them.

I thought this was a cracking film, if a bit barmy (especially towards the end). Lots of good moral conundrums too. When the crew realise that they have insufficient oxygen supplies to reach the sun, should they kill one of their number? The survival of the human race rather depends on the success of the mission, but what if no one volunteers to be martyred for the cause? Should they kill the chap who made the gaffe with the parasol? The predicament is sort of his fault, and he’s a bit suicidal anyway. 

(A very similar issue was raised in an interesting podcast I enjoyed on the way home. During an exchange at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, Richard Dawkins, in debate with Alister McGrath, was wondering (out loud) whether there might be some circumstances in which we might advocate torture. What if an atomic bomb had been set to detonate in one of the world’s major cities, and only the would-be bomber knew where it was? Would we be justified in reaching for the thumbscrews?)

Back to Sunshine. I found myself wondering: if this situation with the sun ever arises (which, we’re told, it eventually will) will people try to do anything about it, or just accept their fate? Would people want to see the continuation of their species above all else? Let’s face it: getting a suitably large bomb organised must be a bit of a palaver.

I accidently found myself on the Wikipedia entry for this film, which had an interesting breakdown of the certifications assigned in different countries. I was particularly taken with Finland, where it got a K13 rating (whatever that is.) This rating was assigned on the basis of the ‘science-fiction setting, peril, zombies and misfortune’. Now there’s a collection of factors liable to warp the purest of innocent minds.

Although, truth be told, I don’t actually remember any zombies…