Archive for the ‘News’ category

Hallows Be Its Name

July 20, 2007

Greetings, brethren.

For a nigh-unimaginable number of people, it’s a very special day today. This day, the 20th of July 2007 AD has been dubbed ‘the last golden day of ignorance’. Everyone get ready. We are about to turn a page.

The page in question, of course, is the front cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh instalment in J. K. Rowling’s record-breaking series. I assume it’s a record-breaking series, although I am at a loss to cite the latest Guiness tome chapter and verse. Let’s take it as a given.

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You’ll have noticed that a degree of fuss has been made over these books. None of it by me, I might add. I’ve not read any of them myself. Which, some might argue, makes me a trifle underqualified to hold forth about them. I did see films one and two, though, which is something. The first one I loathed. But I thought I’d give the second one a go. The second one I loathed.

I found it difficult to get excited about the world’s favourite boy wizard. I am all but alone, it seems. In Britain, one in every forty households has pre-ordered a copy of Hallows. In Morningside, home of J. K. Rowling and veritable hotbed of Pottermania, it is one in every nineteen. Remember, of course, that these figures represent only those would-be readers who have chosen to receive their book in the post. It tells us nothing of the scores who will this evening be crowding into Waterstones to get their greedy little hands on a copy, nor of those more sensible folk who intend to pick up a copy over the next couple of weeks, just whenever they get the chance.

Everyone’s waxing lyrical about Harry Potter at the moment. Our new PM thinks that J. K. Rowling has ‘done more for literacy around the world than any single human being’. Even those responsible for medical audit at the John Radcliffe have entered into the spirit of things. They’ve published the finding that, on average, accidents involving children are far fewer on Harry Potter release dates than on other weekend dates. So they’re all for it, obviously.

I’ve been having a little sniff around all the conspiratorial Potter waffle on the internet. I’ve been particularly enjoying all the leak-anxiety that seems to be floating about. You see, when you’ve got all these books lying about waiting to be delivered, it’s all too tempting for people to take a quick peak. There are all sorts of stories about plot secrets from previous books being leaked prior to the release dates. But the message from the true fans is clear: ‘seriously, we’re almost there guys’. At least Potter fans have got each other to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Anyway, enough of this tosh. Suffice it to say I won’t be attending any Potter launch parties tonight. Largely because I’ll be enjoying the Transformers premiere down at the Ocean Terminal (which, coincidently, starts at the exact moment Hallows is officially released). Stick that in your cauldron and boil it.

Don’t worry. There’ll be a spoiler-laden review to follow shortly.

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Royal Rumble

July 17, 2007

You’ll have heard the news about the BBC’s latest gaffe? No? Let me outline it in brief. The Beeb are in trouble, because they took some footage of the Queen, edited it in such a way as to suggest that she’d stormed out of a photo-shoot with Annie Leibowitz, then put it on telly.

What amused me about the story is that gaffe like this is unlikely to happen by accident. Therefore, somebody somewhere consciously decided that it would be a good idea to mis-splice the sequence of events in order to convey an undoutedly more interesting, but nonetheless totally different story to that which actually took place. The most bizarre aspect of it all, of course, is that the relevant person or persons did not feel that this was at all dubious (or, presumably, they wouldn’t have done it).

What worries me is that they probably only got found out because the Queen happened to see the trailer. This sort of thing is potentially happening all the time. I wonder how much of what we see on TV has undergone a similar sexing up, and passes through our critical filter and is assimilated into our worldview without setting off any warning alarms?

If incidents like this tell us anything, it’s probably that we should be cautious in believing anything we’re told on TV. That’s because those in the television business are less concerned about the accuracy of your knowledge than with trying to get you to watch their programmes. They would rather entertain you than keep you accurately in the know. If you’re entertained, you’ll come back for more, providing a welcome boost for ratings and salaries. If you’re merely in the know, you’ll likely as not change the channel. Or even stop watching television and go outside. This is why Open University is only ever on at a time when no one watches television. It would never survive alongside more entertaining programmes on the other channels. Sad but true, chum.

Our scepticism about TV should probably extend to other media as well. Newspapers, for example, would sooner tell you something sensational than true. Faked photographs of war crimes in Abu Ghraib? Stick ‘em on the front page! Oops, I’ve been sacked.

Sigh. We can’t rely on TV, newspapers, or anything else to keep us properly informed. There seem to be three options available to us: 1) live a life of total ignorance, 2) believe most of what you’re told, with the caveat that it might all be false, or 3) rely solely on The Hutchison Monologues to keep you up to date. At least with the latter option, you’ll not come across anything misleading about the Queen.

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Big Brotha

June 23, 2007

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 ‘Afternoon, honkies.

Hope you’re all well today. I wonder whether you might help me to resolve a confusion that has arisen in my mind of late. It’s been festering for quite a while. Not quite keeping me up at night or anything, but festering nonetheless.

I’m sure you’re not watching Big Brother at the moment. I’m not either. I used to be quite into it, back in its fifth iteration, but the novelty (such as it still retained on the 5th time around the track) has now vanished entirely. There’s something about watching roomfuls of people shouting at the same time that just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Which is sad, in a way.

Anyway, just because I’m not tuning in anymore doesn’t mean that I won’t give my tuppence worth when events in the BB house leak over into the news. Which they did, you will recall. Said events happened some time ago now, but are as yet unaddressed ‘Logueswise.

Before we begin in earnest, an experiment. I’d like you to think of the most offensive word you can. Got it? Don’t tell me what it is. Probably best not to say it out loud at all, actually.

As you grew up, you’ll have noticed that swear-words are arranged in an unspoken hierarchy. To the chagrin of the devout, religious swear-words tend to be quite near the bottom. Scatalogical ones come next, followed by the sexual ones at the top of the heap. The structure of this hierarchy has always intrigued me. Give a group of people some swear-words, and they’ll usually rank them in a similar order of offensiveness (seriously, try it) but how did this ever come to pass? Who decides what’s offensive and what isn’t? Let’s think (as I’m sure we all do) about a certain enjoyable interpersonal activity. Why should one word for it be OK, whilst the use of another would lead to a swift ejection from any polite gathering?

The most offensive word I can think of is an anatomical reference. This anatomical portion, in itself, is not offensive (to me). Nor are the four letters that make up the word. I use them all the time. However, there is just something about seeing them altogether in the correct order that seems puts the wind up folks. Maybe that’s why people in Scunthorpe have a chip on their shoulder. When I was growing up, my friend told me that this word could never be broadcast on television, in any circumstances. I’m not sure where he was getting his information from, but it was clearly false.

Anyway, let’s get to the point. You’ll recall that a certain word passed the lips of art student and Big Brother contestant Emily Parr. The word was considered so offensive that not only did the addressees need to reflect upon the exchange into the wee hours, but poor old (racist?) Emily was booted out.

I think we all know the word I’m talking about here. That’s right. En eye gee gee ee argh.

Personally, I was surprised by the reaction that this utterance provoked. The sheer level of offence was staggering. I know that Big Brother has been known to turn a blind eye to the odd bit of racism in the past, and is obviously wanting to be seen as taking a firm stance now. But was all the furore justified? This is where I’m confused, and would welcome your thoughts. 

This word is everywhere. Watch Pulp Fiction. It is used by both black and white characters, to refer to both black and white characters. It is used to address people, and in conversation about people. I just choose this film as an example, as I’m sure there are loads of others. What about Amazing Grace? Can a word like this be used if it is being used in a historical context? I don’t see people campaigning for either film to be pulled from the shelves.

The same goes for music: isn’t this term common currency in certain genres such as rap? I was having a little look at The African American Registry, in which I found an interesting article about the history of this word. It talks about the increasing popularity of the word amongst young, urban black people, who use it as a pally way to greet each other (apparently). I seem to recall it popping up in a Michael Jackson song at some point in his extensive, accomplished canon. Is it OK for Michael to say it because he’s black? Of course, he’d be the first one to claim that it don’t matter if you’re black or white. Not if you’re thinking about being his baby, that is.

Let’s be clear: I don’t have very strong views about this. I have no particular urge to be allowed to use the word, in the same way that I don’t really wish to make regular use of words like quadragintesimal or galactophagist. They are of no use to me. But I do wonder:

If this word is so offensive, how can it be allowed to appear in films, music and books, but not on Big Brother? And does it stop being offensive when it is used by a black person to greet a black friend, or a white person to greet a white friend? If so, would it be OK for a white person to use it to greet a black friend? I wouldn’t mind if a black friend used it to address me, although I do not presume to speak for all those of paler complexion.

Sorry for the ramble. Best just not say it at all until we get all this sorted out.

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.

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.

Frozen Out

April 12, 2007

embryos.jpgHave you been keeping an eye on the news recently? If so, you won’t have failed to come across the tale of one Natallie Evans. This is a terrible story. It seems that, in the throes of ovarian cancer in 2001, she and then-partner Howard Johnston decided to fertilise and store a selection of her ova, with the presumed intention of implanting them at a later stage. Now that her ovaries have been removed, she is very keen to use these embryos to bear children. But here’s the rub: her relationship with Johnston has since ended, and he’s gone and put the kybosh on the whole thing.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot since I read it. Obviously, the situation is very difficult for those involved, particularly Evans. But it also illustrates an interesting moral quandary.

On the surface of it, it looks like a no brainer. It certainly appears at first glance as if Johnston is being callous and vindictive in denying his erstwhile partner her only chance of being a natural mother. Evans’s supporters claim that Johnston’s agreement to fertilise the eggs represents his giving consent that they could be implanted at any point in the future, regardless of circumstances.

Also, the pro-life crowd will say that it is morally indefensible for the embryos not to be implanted, since they are already fertilised and ready to become children (if they aren’t already). Therefore, Johnston ought to allow them to realise their potential (actual?) humanity despite not wanting anything to do with them himself.

The ‘not wanting anything to do with them’ is problematic, though. Evans might argue that her offspring would never have anything to do with their natural father, i.e. that Johnston would not be affected by the decision to use the embryos. Sadly, as I understand it, children have the right to know who their natural parents are, and to contact them.

Johnston might argue that his consent to use the embryos was given on the understanding that his relationship with Evans would continue. He put it quite well himself: if he wanted to father children with another woman but found he was infertile, he would hardly expect Evans to agree to him using her fertilised eggs to have children with this new partner. But it seems that Evans is suggesting she be allowed to do something which is morally similar, if not identical.

Anyway, the upshot is that she’s lost her appeal at the European Court of Human rights, and the embryos will be destroyed. This is very sad, although I’m not sure that Johnston’s decision is entirely as unreasonable as the news stories would have us believe.

Science is a wonderful thing, but it opens up all sorts of moral minefields. Oh, for the days when we never had to think about this sort of thing.

Bit of a heavy post today. An interesting case, though.

Smack My Kids Up

April 10, 2007

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I was most tickled by one particular item on today’s news. It appears that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are in talks with retail-sector bigwigs in a drive to prevent smacking in shops.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Scotland, this is all a bit of a moot point. In England, it appears that smacking your progeny in public is liable to draw the odd raised eyebrow (more of this in a minute). Do it in Scotland, and you’re liable to end up in the clink. At least, this is how I understand it. I’ve not had the opportunity (well, the desire) to review the relevant legislation.

Another preface, I think: I’m not sure what I make about smacking children. On the one hand, there’s the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ mentality. On the other is the idea that children respond better to positive reinforcement, and that exerting violence on them is sending all the wrong messages about how we should solve interpersonal problems. I think I lean slightly toward the latter view. This is fortuitous, since it seems to be the only tolerable angle to take when you’re north of the border.

Back to England, where the smacking continues unabated. The NSPCC have commissioned a survey into public attitudes towards smacking, and have revealed that 86% of people would be happy to shop in ‘smack-free’ premises. 40% of respondents indicated that they would actively choose ‘smack-free’ shops over their ‘smack-friendly’ competitors.

Another variable to throw into the insatiable engine of consumer choice. I wonder whether this mysterious 40% would actually boycott ‘smack-friendly’ premises in any active way? ‘Excuse me, but before I make this purchase, I was wondering about your corporate position on smacking’.

And it isn’t just the ‘smack-free’ shop idea that seems to be catching on. The NSPCC survey reveals other ways in which shops might help beleagured parents. Apparently, when it all kicks off, shops can ‘display leaflets on how to deal with tantrums and difficult behaviour’. That should help.

Incidently, let’s not forget the 14% who (presumably) would be unhappy to shop in a ‘smack-free’ outlet. Perhaps they fear that children will wise up to the ‘smack-free’ idea. They will wait until they are taken into a ‘smack-free’ shop, upon which they will give full expression to their deviant ways, safe in the knowledge that the final weapon in the parental arsenal has been temporarily disarmed. Genius.

The item on today’s news introduced the possibility of ‘smacking’ and ‘non-smacking’ zones in shops. An excellent middle ground, that. Shoppers would know where they could roam without fear of being confronted with unsavoury scenes of corporal discipline, and it would mean that parents would know where to go when a swift backhand was deemed necessary.

Or perhaps the smackers, like the smokers, should be made to stand outside in the rain.