Monday, 30 January 2012

Ten Questions

We face many years of austerity, and savage cuts in support for many of our cherished institutions will be necessary to ensure the survival of the coalition government. Keen as always to support official policies, Other Men's Flowers is taking the lead: the Board of Editors has decided to make an immediate 50% cut in our much-loved Twenty Questions feature. Here is the first of the newly truncated series:

81    What do 114 suras make?

82    What does the SIM in sim card stand for?

83    "Honi soit qui mal y pense" is the motto of what?

84    What links Jim Morrison, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Chopin?

85    Which girl's name was invented by Jonathan Swift?

86    Other than humans, which animals can carry leprosy?

87    Which Broadway star's marriage to Ernest Borgnine lasted 32 days?

88    Which novel is set on 16 June 1904?

89    What's the only Scrabble tile with a value not shared by any others?

90    Against whom is the bloody standard raised?


Earlier questions are HERE

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Lesser-known Rudyard

Most Englishmen have no problem in meeting with with Triumph and Disaster, and are fully aware not only that the female of the species is more deadly than the male, but also that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. Few realise, though, that some of Kipling's seemingly high-flown pronouncements are actually ironic or even sarcastic.

A poem he wrote in 1919 is called The Gods of the Copybook Headings. Hardly anyone nowadays has any idea what the title means; you will have to look here if you want to find out what a copybook is, and even then it is not easy to understand exactly what the sly old devil is saying. It could be that he is making a plea for common sense, but perhaps he is pouring scorn on traditional values.

One verse has given us a colourful image in its third line:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire

But there is a reason why I have been reminded of these fusty old verses. Let us, holding our noses, turn to the paranoid commentator Glenn Beck, conspiracy theorist, rabble-rouser and darling of Fox News and the loony right. He used the last two verses of the poem in a video trailer and read the entire poem except the final lines on air in his broadcast on October 7, 2010, making an attempt to explain it in terms of today's politics and his own beliefs.

If, on November 6th, one of the possibilities facing the US is realised, he will have a powerful friend: Glenn Beck is a Mormon.


Friday, 20 January 2012

A triumph for the FSM

Austria has long been regarded as a reactionary society, so it is splendid news than an Austrian man has, after a three-year struggle, won the right to wear a colander on his head for his passport photograph. Well done Niko Alm of Vienna, who has struck a blow for Pastafarians everywhere!

Those unfamiliar with Pastafarianism should read the note in Wikipedia which explains how its clever and effective argument underlines the absurdity of Intelligent Design and the preposterous creed of creationism.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

Still around

Last month the Sunday Times published a two-page article in which Lord Snowdon and his son Viscount Linley paid extravagant compliments to each other. Linley noted "a certain elegance" in everything his father did, illustrated by anecdotes such as the one recounting how he turned away a workman who had come to fit a chairlift because he wasn't sporting a nice tie.

A few years ago a biography of Snowdon was published by Anne De Courcy, describing him in comparable terms. Reading a book review can often provide a better experience than its subject ever could; a perceptive and witty review of a rubbishy biography of a rubbishy person can be thoroughly enjoyable.  Here are some snippets from Catherine Bennett's delicious review of Snowdon: The Biography, by Anne De Courcy, which tell you all you could possibly want to know about the book and the man:

has worked for Lord Snowdon all his life almost works in this hagiography. In a little world populated by England's most ghastly and dim, he again appears to enormous advantage: abrim with style (of a sort), charm (if you like that kind of thing) and energy (mainly for sex). It is worth remembering, of course, that in this context the same would apply to the average tomcat.
....When, to his enormous satisfaction, the priapic photographer (then called Antony Armstrong-Jones) made it into the royal family, it was easy for this spoiled little pixie, with his extra-tight drainpipes and mesmerising bouffant, to be mistaken for a much-needed corrective to the snobbery, stupidity, and stolid sybaritism of the nation's top inbreds. Simply by being a society photographer, as opposed to a titled nothing, Snowdon was able to portray himself as an arty free spirit, almost an intellectual, under whose tonic tutelage, it was imagined, the Windsor troupe might evolve into a more acceptable, near-human subspecies.
...The most iconoclastic thing he ever did, as a royal, was to wear polo necks instead of ties, a level of democratic endeavour that proved eminently acceptable to his in-laws, who soon discovered that they preferred the dashing, yet reliably subservient, Tony to foul-tempered Princess Margaret.
...The exact nature of the qualities that captivated Princess Margaret, her family, Snowdon's legions of ill-treated lovers and, most recently, the author of this dazzled tribute, remains, even after 400 pages, obscure. Loyal De Courcy passes on reports of an extremely large penis, but that can hardly account for Snowdon's effect on Prince Philip. Or, later, on Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, who said Snowdon was "the best provost we ever had".
Was it wit? None is recorded here. Young Snowdon's speciality was nasty practical jokes, such as putting dead fish in girls' beds. It was the grown-up Snowdon's, too: "they would sortie out to the houses of neighbours they knew to be out or away", De Courcy hilariously reports, of the earl and his chums, "and rearrange all the furniture".
...Looks, then? As irresistible as Snowdon may have been in the 50s and 60s, and even the 70s and 80s, it hardly accounts for the posh old shagger's continuing appeal, not only to the author of this homage, but, incredibly, to an attractive young journalist, Melanie Cable-Alexander (by whom he fathered a child)
....Although De Courcy tries valiantly to generate admiration for various artistic and charitable triumphs, her efforts are continually nullified, not by her obvious partiality, but by yet more evidence of Snowdon's awfulness, as volunteered to her, exclusively, by himself. There are reasons, De Courcy shows, why Snowdon should have emerged so deceitful, manipulative and cruel; so mean, boastful and silly. His father sounds silly too. His mother more or less ignored him until he bagged Margaret. He had polio as a child, leaving him with a dodgy leg. Then again, you'd think that half a century of adulation, plus a family, experience and a bit of maturity would eventually even things out. On the contrary. It is only, one suspects, because he is using a wheelchair that Snowdon does not, even now, creep out of a night to plant dead fish or rearrange people's furniture.

I suppose I've taken rather more than snippets, but it's still worth following the link and reading the article, if only to learn about the wedding present for him and Margaret for which British servicemen's pay was docked by sixpence apiece, and why his mother was called Tugboat Annie.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Blessed is the cheesemaker

In a speech delivered at the LSE, Malcom Turnbull gives an Australian's view of China and refers to the assumption by Americans they will always be the strongest, richest and cleverest nation on earth. He goes on to suggest that there is evidence of a growing sense of inadequacy, and the realisation, not limited to Americans, that the rest of the world is becoming outclassed by China: "Nobody who has visited Shanghai could be unimpressed".

Well, yes. But the experiences of many of the expatriates who have lived and worked in China for some years may cause them to give a wry smile at the "cleverest nation on earth" bit, having found incompetence, mendacity, inflexibility and general stupidity and lack of sense among many—or even most—of the clients and employers they encounter. The miseries of being an expatriate trying to make a living in China are described by Froog with justifiable anger.

But there is another side to the Chinese character. In the blog of an American globetrotter called Heather I came across an account of the achievement of a young Chinese man called Liu Yang who went to France to study management, fell in love with cheese, learned all about it and became a cheese maker. Now he is single-handedly introducing cheese culture to Beijing with his artisanal cheeses, handmade in his workshop. Although most of his clients are expatriates, he is slowly winning over Beijing locals. Heather's blog has a link to a Mercedes-Benz ad in which he talks about his business.

Clearly Liu has enormous energy, initiative, determination and sheer ability. Of course he is only one out of 1.3 billion, and there must be several hundred millions in China who lack all these qualities and resemble those Froog has encountered, but there must also be tens of millions who could one day do the sort of thing that Liu Yang has done.

This is an inspiring thought. Or perhaps a frightening one.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Streisand, Poe, Sturgeon and Arkell

The first is an Effect, the second and third are Laws and the fourth is a Response: all these are familiar to users of the internet. They have been described by Wikipedia or the Oxford English Dictionary as follows:

The Streisand Effect: This is a primarily online phenomenon in which an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose attempt in 2003 to suppress photographs of her residence inadvertently generated further publicity. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters, to suppress numbers, files and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.

...The term was coined after Streisand, citing privacy violations, unsuccessfully sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and for US$50 million in an attempt to have an aerial photograph of her mansion removed from the publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs. Adelman said that he was photographing beachfront property to document coastal erosion as part of the government-commissioned California Coastal Records Project. As a result of the case, public knowledge of the picture increased substantially; more than 420,000 people visited the site over the following month. 

Poe's Law: Named after its author Nathan Poe, this is an Internet adage reflecting the fact that without a clear indication of the author's intent it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between sincere extremism and an exaggerated parody of extremism. Its core is that a parody of something is by nature extreme. That makes it impossible to differentiate from sincere extremism.

A corollary of Poe's law is the reverse phenomenon: legitimate fundamentalist beliefs being mistaken for a parody of that belief. A further corollary, the Poe Paradox, results from suspicion of the first corollary. The paradox is that any new person or idea sufficiently extreme to be accepted by the extremist group risks being rejected as a parody or parodist.

Sturgeon's Law: A humorous aphorism which maintains that most of any body of published material, knowledge, etc., (or, more generally, of everything) is worthless: based on a statement by Theodore Sturgeon, usually later cited as ‘90 per cent of everything is crap’, typically used of a specific medium, originally science fiction, and now frequently also of information to be found on the Internet.

The aphorism was apparently first formulated in 1951 or 1952 at a lecture at New York University and popularized at the 1953 WorldCon science fiction convention.

The Response of Pressdram to Arkell: An unlikely piece of British legal history occurred in what is now referred to as the "case" of Arkell v. Pressdram (1971). The plaintiff was the subject of an article [in Private Eye] relating to illicit payments, and the magazine had ample evidence to back up the article. Arkell's lawyers wrote a letter which concluded: "[My client's] attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply."

The magazine's response was, in full: "We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that your client's attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off."

In the years following, the magazine would refer to this exchange as a euphemism for a blunt and coarse dismissal: for example, "We refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram". As with "tired and emotional" this usage has spread beyond the magazine.

(There is also Godwin's Law, but this is not so much a law, more an adage or a memetic tool.)