Category Archives: foolishness

We are the tables

As the upload of Robert Wyatt’s A short break completes, I have now ripped my entire CD collection; rather smaller than my vinyl collection, but it still amounts to 2690 songs (or seven days and 20 hours, as iTunes helpfully informs me). So let’s do this properly. Hit it! (And for a bonus point, name two Talking Heads songs where David Byrne uses that un-David-Byrne-like expression.)

Step 1: Put your media-player on random play.
Step 2: Write down the first line from the first 20 songs that play.
Step 3: Let everyone guess what song the lines come from.
Step 4: Cross out the songs when someone guesses correctly.

Same rules as before: no instrumentals, no sampled spoken-word, no songs with the title in the first line and nothing I don’t recognise myself. Also no repeats from the first time I did this – in fact, nothing from the same album as anything that came up the first time round. And no two songs from the same artist. Simple, really. I don’t know why we don’t do this kind of thing more often.

Update 17th June – remaining beans spilled.

  1. “You’re the only woman I need, and baby you know it”
    – Amen Corner, “Bend me, shape me”
  2. “Ar ol llond poced o fadarch roes ti’r ty ar dan”
    – SFA, “Dim Bendith”
  3. “My eyes burn naked, my black cold numbers, my insecurities, my devious nature, make it go away”
    – Underworld, “Sola Sistim”
  4. “The last message you sent said I looked really down”
    – Franz Ferdinand, “You could have it so much better”
  5. “See me comin’ to town with my soul”
    – Beck, “E-Pro”
  6. “Did you ever hover in the distance?”
    – Robyn Hitchcock, “Oceanside”
  7. “Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain”
    – Bob Dylan, “Just like a woman”
  8. “I want to chill, want to sit real still, want to sleep like the dead on a bed of roses”
    – the Divine Comedy, “Bad ambassador”
  9. “Last night your shadow fell upon my lonely room”
    – the Electric Prunes, “I had too much to dream last night”
  10. “Alcohol, heroin, THC, care in the impotent community”
    – Fatima Mansions, “Chemical Cosh”
  11. “Over an ocean away, like salmon, turning back for Nayram”
    – Robert Wyatt, “Maryan”
  12. “You’ve been away so long, too long, what’s wrong with us today?”
    – Lightning Seeds, “What if”
  13. “I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll this time”
    – Radiohead, “Lucky”
  14. “I don’t want to lose her, I don’t want to hurt her, I don’t want to lose her”
    – Mull Historical Society, “Her is you”
  15. “Sitting in the classroom, thinking it’s a drag”
    – Brownsville Station (covered by REM), “Smokin’ in the boys’ room”
  16. “There’s a farm called Misery, but of that we’ll have none”
    – Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, “Jollity Farm”
  17. “Here comes Johnny Yen again”
    – Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life”
  18. “I saw two shadow men on the Vallance Road”
    – the Libertines, “Up the bracket”
  19. “Reporting damage, it is soft rock shit”
    – Cornershop, “Lessons learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”
  20. “Damn that television!”
    – Talking Heads, “Found a job”
  21. “When the last frost of Winter has thawed”
    – Nothing Painted Blue, “Career Day”
  22. “Hi, we’re your weather girls, and have we got news for you!”
    – the Weather Girls, “Why don’t you eat carrots?”

Definitely more representative of my collection than the previous take; I think it might be easier, too. Over to you.

Update 2nd June: I realised when I got to the end of this list that I’d missed one out. So now there are 21.

Another update, 5th June: Paul (comments) has me bang to rights – there were actually two that got missed out. Oh well, make it 22.

I get so tired of my room

[Updated 19th May – all is revealed.]

Jim: I decide to go hunting for a musical blog meme.

Cheers, Jim – don’t mind if I do.

Step 1: Put your media-player on random play.
Step 2: Write down the first line from the first 20 songs that play.
Step 3: Let everyone guess what song the lines come from.
Step 4: Cross out the songs when someone guesses correctly.

Here goes. Like Jim, I’ve excluded instrumentals and songs with the title in the first line; I’ve also excluded tracks I didn’t recognise myself and, arbitrarily, a version of “Auld Lang Syne”. I haven’t ripped very many CDs, so the list that follows is biased towards certain categories of music – primarily a) things I really like and b) things from freebie CDs that I wanted to throw away. (And no, of course I’m not saying which is which.)

  1. I saw you in your wetsuit, you were watching from the shower
    – Orange Juice, “Salmon fishing in New York”
  2. Belly up in a sea of love
    – Doves, “Rise” (Paulie)
  3. An address to the golden door
    – the Shins, “So say I”
  4. I come home in the morning light
    – Cyndi Lauper, “Girls just wanna have fun” (Paulie)
  5. I saw a boy’s t-shirt today
    – the Earlies, “One of us is dead”
  6. Put in your pocket for a rainy day, sing your song and you know you’re wrong now
    – the Beta Band, “the House Song” (Rob)
  7. Clouds so swift, rain won’t lift
    – Bob Dylan, “You ain’t going nowhere” (Jim)
  8. All I wanted was your time
    – Espers (or Durutti Column), “Tomorrow”
  9. One-way system, smooth and commendable
    – Half Man Half Biscuit, “For what is Chatteris” (Jim)
  10. Well, she’s all you’d ever want
    – Tom Jones, “She’s a lady”
  11. You say that your love was just for me now
    – Toots and the Maytals, “True love is hard to find”
  12. I’m just a common-or-garden guy
    – Peter Blegvad, “Magritte”
  13. Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street
    – Joe Jackson, “Is she really going out with him?” (Paulie)
  14. Hey, you – you wouldn’t make a phone call if it didn’t serve you
    – Hamell on Trial, “Go fuck yourself”
  15. We pulled up with three miles to go
    – James Yorkston and the Athletes, “Banjo #2”
  16. Waiting for the break of day
    – Chicago, “25 or 6 to 4”
  17. Practice doesn’t make perfect when you’re interbreeding
    – Blur, “Villa Rosie” (Justin)
  18. I could be pouring my heart out, I still don’t think that you’d hear me
    – King Creosote, “Marguerita Red”
  19. The lunch bell rang at one o’clock sharp
    – Barry Booth, “The hottest day of the year”
  20. Oh, the towering feeling
    – Vic Damone (and doubtless others), “The street where you live” (Larry)

Inner meet me

Or: what gets left out of those ‘meme’ things.

7 places I’ve loved

1. Pendine: the cliffs, the endless horizon, the beach in the off season
2. Scilly, especially St Agnes (and the view of St Agnes from St Mary’s, at sunset)
3. Florence
4. Paris
5. Edinburgh
6. Brighton (and Hove, actually)
7. London, especially Somers Town

[The only] 6 membership organisations I’ve [ever] joined
1. NALGO
2. END
3. The Socialist Society
4. The Socialist Movement
5. GMB
6. AUT

5 albums that sound as good now as they ever did
1. the Faust Tapes
2. Basket of Light
3. Metal Box
4. World Shut Your Mouth
5. dubnobasswithmyheadman

4 people I can be mistaken for
1. Philip Edwards
2. Phil Edwards
3. Phil Edwards
4. Stuart Russell

3 great songwriters
1. Robyn Hitchcock
2. Peter Blegvad
3. Bob Dylan

2 people I’ve encountered briefly but never truly met, and now never will
1. Edward Thompson
2. Raymond Williams

1 embarrassing memory
When Walkmans were new my father went out and bought one for my younger sister – it wasn’t her birthday, he just wanted to get her one. (They cost some enormous amount at that time – I’ve got the figure of £75 in my mind, although that may be wrong.) I sulked until he went out and bought me one too. I was 21 at the time.

(I am of course tagging 0 other bloggers.)

Could do better

“Yes, I know, I know. 2005’s over already, we’re more than halfway through the decade… you’re not the only one who’s embarrassed, how do you think I feel? Yes, I know it was supposed to be all m-computing and always-on GPS and ubiquitous wifi jetpacks by now, but it’s been difficult, I mean, look at the state of the economy… OK, OK, I shouldn’t have said ‘jetpacks’, forget I said that, no, I am taking this seriously, really I am… but come on, apart from anything else there’s been this war going on, that hasn’t helped… yes, I know military spending is supposed to be a major driver of high-tech R&D… maybe it just isn’t driving R&D the way we’d like it to, have you thought of that? look at Segways, they were going to be the next big thing at one stage… OK, OK, I’ll stop trying to change the subject… Look, what can I say? We’ll do better this year. I’ll do better this year. Trust me. OK? OK.”

Web promises to become more pervasive in 2006

A couple of tra-la-las

I quite liked the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, although I have to admit to a certain bias in favour of any film featuring Tilda Swinton – particularly Tilda Swinton riding in a chariot, wearing chain mail and a lion’s mane (spoiler, sorry), brandishing two large swords and glaring, always glaring

Sorry, I seem to have drifted off for a moment there. Anyway, it looks like a fair bet that they’ll plough on with the rest of the series, and I for one am looking forward to the Last Battle. Who could forget that climactic scene in the Narnia beyond Narnia which was also England beyond England, that land beyond all lands which contained all lands and held within it the bright promise of everything that is true and good in human experience…

“One thing yet puzzleth me but a tad,” said Prince Vivien. “In the tales of old we hear of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, and yet here you are and there’s like three of you total? I mean, hell-o? If ye take my drift, good lords and lady.”

Lucy sighed. “Yes, we told Queen Susan that we were going to jump through our magic mirror into the wonderful land of Narnia and have lots of jolly adventures, but she just said something about having a banging headache from last night and could we all go away. Actually, she didn’t say ‘go away’, she said -”

“That’s about the size of it,” Edmund cut in. “Susan doesn’t care about Narnia these days – all she does seem to care about is nylons and lipstick and mascara and eye shadow and foundation and that red powder that you really have to rub in – rouge, that’s right – and there’s this lip gloss she wears sometimes, you know, and she’s got all these different colours of nail polish, there’s one that’s almost clear but when it catches the light it’s got all these sparkly bits… She’s a sight too interested in all that nonsense, if you ask me.”

Peter nodded. “That, and getting bonked silly by that boyfriend of hers – and no, Lu, I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘which one’, she’s told me she only ever has one on the go at a time. Still, the fact remains that she’s foregone the chance to have lots of jolly adventures in the wonderful land of Narnia in exchange for nothing more than the sordid pleasures of the teenage meat market. She always was a sight too keen on growing up, if you ask me.”

Lady Polly frowned. “There’s growing up and growing up – look at me, I haven’t had a good night out in sixty years, but you don’t see me complaining! No, if you ask me Susan’s one of these modern girls who just want to get to the silliest, most irresponsible, most frivolous, most sexually active and most pleasurable stage of life as quickly as possible – and stay there as long as possible. Why, at this very moment poor old Susan’s probably staggering in after a wild night out, she’s probably got roaring drunk and danced till she was ready to drop, and now she’s probably going to summon her last dwindling reserves of energy for a wild session with some young stud. And tomorrow night she’ll probably do it all over again.”

“Poor old Susan,” said Lord Digory. “When you think, she could have been here with us. In this… place.”

“Is this… is this Heaven?” said Lucy in a small voice.

“Well, we are dead,” said Lord Digory, “if that’s what you mean.”

“I thought so,” said Lucy happily.

The silence was broken by a sigh from Prince Vivien.

“Poor old Queen Susan. To think that she’s missing out on all this.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “Poor old Susan.”

The Templars and the Saracens

In a piece which appears in The Salmon of Doubt (I don’t know whether it was published in the author’s lifetime), Douglas Adams writes:

There’s always a moment when you fall out of love, whether it’s with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it’s one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: “These scientists, eh? They’re so stupid! You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they’re meant to be indestructible? It’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? So why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?“The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out of titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium, they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place? … There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behavior, you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine, and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.

De mortuis, but I tend to think the (self-)criticism was apt. A lot of Hitchhiker is less like a novel – or radio series – than a student revue (a very good student revue, admittedly): take the paper-thin characterisations, the dialogue built around gag lines or – more importantly for the current argument – the evocation of weird and counter-intuitive areas of science and philosophy, undercut by a common-sensical English ordinariness. This is amplified by the Pythonesque dogged persistence which won’t let go of an idea until it’s been pushed to its logical limit, taken over the limit, fined for exceeding the limit and embroiled in a lengthy but inconclusive case in the Court of Over-Extended Metaphors. Stylistically, this gives us Arthur’s exchange with Prosser over the planning notice (“…behind a door marked Beware of the Tiger”) or most of Marvin’s lines (“The second million years, they were the worst too.”) – great lines all, but very unlike anything anyone would actually say. Put it together with the common-sensical idea-juggling and you get, for example, the argument for atheism derived (all too logically) from the Babel Fish. What’s most striking about this argument is that it’s got nothing in common with the arguments of actual proponents of “intelligent design” – which are no less ridiculous, but turn on the idea that the wondrous complexity of the universe does provide evidence of the handiwork of a Designer. There’s a lack of engagement with the Creationist mindset here, which ironically makes that mindset harder to combat. If you assume that everyone starts from the same set of common-sense precepts, genuinely alien world-views will only be explicable on the grounds that the people holding them are irrational or stupid – which isn’t the best way to open an argument, even (or especially) an intransigently critical argument.

The mindset that this kind of writing seems to represent (and affirm) is that of someone who’s learnt a lot of valuable stuff in a short time, and who now doesn’t see the need to learn very much more. There is stuff out there that you could learn, but most of it’s not really worth the effort – at best it’s inessential, at worst it’s a pile of pretentious verbiage. If you demonstrably know a lot more than the average person about genuinely important topics, the chances are that you know enough – enough to see through the people who tell you there’s more to be known, anyway. It speaks to the inner second-year science student, in short. (One of the benefits of doing an arts degree is that you never forget that there’s lots of important stuff out there that you genuinely don’t understand. You never forget this if you have any contact with second-year science students, anyway.)

Terry Pratchett has a lighter hand with the dogged persistence than Douglas Adams, but in most other respects he’s a far better writer (he’s much better at people, for a start). That said, some of his jokes suggest the same kind of self-enclosed common sense, evoking the alien without engaging with it. (Does Pseuds’ Corner take nominations from blogs?) One example is the (admittedly funny) dwarfish war-cry “This is a good day for someone else to die!” Some years ago, the KliLakota original of this slogan (“This is a good day to die!”) was discussed on the alt.fan.pratchett newsfroup. The tone of the discussion was cheerful and uncomprehending. I wouldn’t say that anyone jeered at the KlinLakota, but very few people showed much sign of understanding the slogan, as distinct from Pratchett’s common-sensical inversion of it). One’s own death is, after all, an eventuality to be postponed as long as possible, not to be embraced. One poster even suggested that the slogan had begun as a deliberately-tempting-Fate insurance policy, akin to “break a leg”.

Fortunately one poster – the wonderfully-named ‘Catherine Denial’ – pointed out that death in battle was an honourable fate for KlingLakotadammit warriors, so that the slogan could actually be taken literally (‘death in battle’=’good death’, ‘today’=’day of battle’, therefore…). [Update 23/6/2007: it’s just come to my notice that Catherine Denial is in fact not a clever pseudonym but the name of a real person, who has written widely on nineteenth-century American history. Apologies.]

And I’m not sure even this goes far enough. The point is, surely, that the function of soldiers (contemporary, dwarfish or KlingoLakota) is to kill and risk being killed – and that unwillingness to do the latter makes them less effective in doing the former. The tone is very different, but in terms of the underlying worldview “This is a good day to die!” isn’t so far from the Royal Navy saying “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.” Meaning, in the words of a post from soc.history.what-if by the late and much-missed Alison Brooks,

When it is raining and dark, your feet are giving you hell because they have been wet for two weeks, when you are carrying a pack weighing your own weight, when you are on the edge of a minefield, aware that, well within range, are more people than you who want to kill you, and they have the capacity to do so, when your best friend standing ten feet from you gets hit, and you have to wipe his brains from your face so that you can see, and when the instruction is given to go forward, if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.

You risk death – and, if so instructed, take actions which you know will increase your risk of death – because that’s what you do: that’s what being in the armed forces is all about. (Not that you’ll find it in the recruitment literature.) In its more aggressive form – getting back to the Native Americans – this outlook also makes for a more formidable opponent: an enemy who wants to save his own skin first and kill you second is a lot easier to deter than one who just wants to kill you.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, this post isn’t really about Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett; it’s not even about the Royal Navy or the Lakota (let alone the blasted Klingons). It began life about a month ago – a decade or so in blogtime – in response to this post on Brian Barder’s blog and the ensuing comments, this one in particular. Brian writes:

it’s obviously psychotic, isn’t it?, to be unable to perceive the large-scale random murders of wholly innocent people as anything but evil? And when the murders are deliberately and unnecessarily accompanied by the suicides of the murderers, doesn’t that suggest minds that have become completely unhinged? Isn’t it psychotic to suppose that some desirable result can be achieved by killing others and oneself because of ‘grievances’ that have nothing whatever to do with the murder victims, and which can’t possibly have a better chance of being remedied as a result of the murders committed?

As long as we persist in seeing [the bombers] as politically and rationally motivated people whose response to their grievances is to go out and kill people, and as long as we strive to ‘understand‘ that behaviour, we shall encourage more of the same. It is insane as well as evil to act in the way that they have done, and while we need to try to hack out the roots of the insanity as well as of the evil and criminality, we need to beware of giving the impression that by trying to understand them and what they did, we regard murder as an understandable (and therefore in some sense defensible) response to a political grievance. Psychiatrists may properly seek to understand the roots of insane and evil behaviour: the rest of us need to be clear that the behaviour is insane and evil and that it can never be condoned.

Brian conflates two arguments which, I think, urgently need to be disentangled. On one hand, I don’t believe that it does any good to deny that the bombers acted rationally, let alone to describe them as ‘psychotic’: their world view was certainly alien to me, but I don’t think it was also insane. Apart from anything else, is it necessarily a sign of psychosis to kill innocent people, to carry out attacks which will cost your own life, or to attack people whose death can’t in itself advance your cause? Not, I would argue, if you’re a soldier – or an irregular combatant (were Orde Wingate’s Special Night Squads ‘psychotic’? is Hamas?). Similarly, the bombers’ actions make sense if we assume that they saw themselves as part of a guerrilla force, fighting in one front of a war with Britain (among other nations), and prepared to use any means – however inhumane – to further their cause.

Obviously this world-view – as well as the acts it inspires – is vile and cannot be condoned: to understand it is not (pace Brian) to see it as in any way defensible. But, as I said above, there are two separate arguments here. Yes, the London bombings were evil and can never be condoned; but no, this does not require us to characterise them as insane. Visualise concentric circles. To demand that Britain withdraw from Iraq is a legitimate political point of view which is widely held (and which is not necessarily counter to British national interests). To demand that ‘the West’ withdraw from ‘Islamic lands’ is a legitimate point of view which has rather fewer adherents (and which is counter to British national interests). And to set out to kill at random in order to further this point of view is unforgivably evil; moreover, it is an unforgivable evil committed in a bad cause. (As I’ve argued before, it’s hardly possible – and may not even be desirable – to uncouple your assessment of a terrorist act from your assessment of the cause involved.)

This is what I mean by ‘understanding’ – and I don’t see that it involves any ‘condoning’, any ‘in some sense defensible’. What it does involve is visualising those concentric circles – which I think is essential, if we’re to have any hope of stopping the flow of recruits from outer circle to inner.

These things take time

I don’t think the word ‘blog’ is really a contraction of ‘web log’. I think the ‘b’ stands for ‘back’.

The other day I worked out I had four blog posts planned: one on religion and hatred (half-written); one on attitudes to technology (complementing some of Chris‘s recent posts); one on ideas of ‘old’ and ‘new’ in politics, & how pervasive and misleading they are; and one, probably for the Sharpener, on immigration and social control. The trouble is, each one of these will probably take about an hour to write, & that’s on top of blog reading time (not to mention work, sleep, life etc). So it could take a while – especially since, when I sat down the other day to finish the ‘religious hatred’ post, I ended up writing a brief response to one of Alex‘s posts, which turned out not to be that brief after all and raised several issues I hadn’t thought through properly (thanks, Robert). And I’d really like to write something a bit more developed about Orwell in response to Justin

Aaargh. Too much to think, too little time to think it in.

Part of the problem is that I was blogging like a mad thing at one stage, & don’t actually have the stamina to keep it going at that rate. I hope shortly to arrive at a revised definition of normal service, whereupon it will be resumed as soon as possible. In the mean time, I’ve reshuffled my blogroll, adding some good writers I’d missed and removing a bunch of blogs, including everyone else who posts at the Sharpener. I don’t really like blogrolls; as I wrote at my other blog,

the globally ‘popular’ blogs are quite popular enough already without their readers directing yet more traffic their way – and, for most of us, global ‘popularity’ is an irrelevant distraction. From which it follows that blogs don’t need blogrolls. If we blogroll everyone whose posts we respond to, the blogroll’s unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we blogroll everyone whose blogs we read – or, from the look of some blogrolls, every blogWeb site we’ve ever readheard of – the power law will kick in: links will inevitably tend to cluster around the ‘top’ five or ten or fifty blogs, the blogs Everybody Knows, the A List (ugh).

I’m keeping the blogroll here, but trimming it to focus on particularly good and overlooked writers. (If I’ve dropped yours, it was obviously because it was too well-known.)

One final thought: three cheers for the Foreign Office!

Lady Thatcher told Reagan in a telephone call at the end of May 1982 that Britain could not contemplate a ceasefire before Argentina withdrew from the Falklands.According to Sir Lawrence, she asked Reagan: “How would the Americans react if Alaska were invaded and, as the invaders were being thrown out, there were calls for the Americans to withdraw?” She is said to have been “dismayed” by Reagan’s attitude and wanted him to know just how “upset” she was.

Washington pointed out that the US had secretly supplied Britain’s special forces with communications satellites and ammunition. But Lady Thatcher was adamant. “We have lost a lot of blood, and it’s the best blood,” she told Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s ambassador to the US, on an open line.

It’s the best blood. I know I should be thinking of Enoch Powell here, but I keep coming up with Hilary Briss.

Senior civil servants, we salute you! For at least eight years – perhaps for as long as eleven – our government was clearly headed by a crazy person. The principled men and women of the Foreign Office stood between the world and Thatcher’s delusions of racial grandeur. Only now can we see just how well they played their part.

I mean, check it out.

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