My Saturnalia message

December 22, 2012

This year I’ve decided to have a message for the festive season. In honour of Sheldon Cooper, it will be a Saturnalia message. Alas it will have to be brief. All the talk this week has been about the Mayan calendar, but nobody remembers Harold Camping, the American Christian radio broadcaster. Camping. With the help of the science of numerology he has predicted the End Times on a number of occasions, including twice in 2011. In the face of these erroneous predictions Camping’s congregation dwindled to about 25 adults on a typical Sunday, according to Wikipedia. The radio preacher even made Time magazine’s “Top 10 Failed Predictions“. On June 9, 2011, Camping suffered a stroke and was hospitalised. After he was released from hospital, he went into to a nursing home for rehabilitation. He is now at home but his speech may have become slurred. His radio program, Camping’s Open Forum, has been taken off Family Radio.

Anyway, we’re all still here. I wish you a happy Saturnalia and a sceptical new year. I’ll be back in the first week of January.

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To all the words I’ve loved before

December 22, 2012

Linguist David Crystal says he has no favourite words – they are all fascinating in their own right. I’m sure he’s right. Nevertheless, there are some words I find especially appealing. It could be the sound, the meaning or some psycho-sexual trauma from childhood. Who knows? I’m sure I’ve left some out, but here is my list:

ad hominem

blurb

chutzpah

circumlocution

conundrum

counterintuitive

crapulence

cynical

defenestrate

deleterious

deus ex machina

discombobulate

disgust

doppelganger

dyspathy

egregious

epicure

epistemology

equivocate

eschatology

feckless

flibbertigibbet

frisson

frolic

gauche

hagiography

halcyon

heuristics

hubris

imbroglio

insouciance

jejune

jeremiad

kerfuffle

libertarian

louche

lucubration

lugubrious

mellifluous

misanthrope

NIMBY

odious

omnishambles

paradigm

pejorist

procrustean

sanculottic

scatology

sceptic

schadenfreude

schmooze

sesquipedalian

shibboleth

sui generis

supercilious

unctuous

zeitgeist


Did we really go to the moon?

December 15, 2012

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. Benjamin Franklin

To some, the thrill of space can‘t hold a candle to the thrill of conspiracy. Howard McCurdy

 __________

In his book The Pig that wants to be Eaten philosopher Julian Baggini proposes a curious thought experiment in which a man claims that the moon is made of cheese, mozzarella to be precise:

By saying that, I may have signed my own death warrant. You see they don’t want us to know. They’ll claim I’m mad. But as Kurosawa said, “In a mad world only the mad are sane.” “But men have walked on the moon,” you say. Wrong. It was all a fake, filmed in a studio by NASA. Haven’t you seen the movie Capricorn One? If it weren’t for lawyers, that would have been billed as a documentary. …Think about it: how else would Elvis be able to stay alive up there if he didn’t have an endless supply of cheese?

Baggini does have his tongue firmly in his cheek, but his faux conspiracy theory does raise some interesting epistemological questions. Epistemology is the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity. How do we know what we know? The moon landing conspiracy theories provide fertile ground for such investigations. As Baggini points out, the facts never provide enough evidence to prove one theory and one theory only. There will always be a gap – the possibility that an alternative theory is true. That is why in a trial the prosecution has to prove guilty beyond reasonable doubt; you can never have proof beyond all doubt. We live in a highly complex world. We are bombarded with political spin, baffled by scientific knowledge that is incomprehensible to most of us, accustomed to Photoshop’s manipulation of reality and subject to the cynical misuse of statistics in the media. We just don’t know who we can trust. How can we ever know what is for real?

So, did we really go the moon? I’m sure you will have heard many of the scientific arguments, some of which were alluded to in the Mitchell and Webb sketch. Here are two of the more celebrated claims with the official denials:

  1. The film footage shows the American flag “waving” in the allegedly airless environment of the moon. The flag waved because the astronauts touched it, creating ripples in the fabric. Once it was jammed in the hole, the flag mysteriously stopped waving.
  1. There are no stars in the moon sky, yet when you look up at night from earth you see lots of stars. The astronauts were not there to take pictures of the sky. If you want to shoot stars in the night sky you will need to aim your camera and leave the shutter open for at least several seconds. However, it is very bright on the moon and the astronauts were wearing white space suits. Setting a camera with the proper exposure for a glaring spacesuit would naturally have rendered background stars too faint to see

There are other claims about shadows blast craters, lunar dust and astronauts being fried by the Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth. I don’t pretend to understand all the science behind these claims and counterclaims. But there are other common sense reasons why I find the moon hoax theory preposterous.

In order for their claims to be true, it means that each of the 400,000 or so astronauts engineers, scientists, studio technicians and project managers who worked on the Apollo missions were either dupes or knowing participants in the hoax. NASA, which according to the conspiracy buffs made some incredibly rudimentary mistakes, has somehow been capable of keeping this secret for more than four decades. It displays a rather naïve faith in the competence of government. The president at the time, a certain Richard Nixon, presided over an administration that couldn’t even keep the tawdry fiasco that was Watergate under wraps.

And what about role of the Soviet Union in this alleged hoax. Would they too have been taken in by American chicanery? And if they did know, it beggars belief that, at the height of the Cold War, they would have meekly allowed the United States to score this massive propaganda victory. And with cold war consigned to history, surely someone would have finally blown the whistle.

In a previous post I did about conspiracy theories I referred to Ockham’s razor; all other things being equal, the simplest solution, the one that makes the fewest assumptions, should be selected. We need to decide which scenario is likelier:

1) NASA actually built flight-worthy spacecraft capable of landing men on the moon, which they then landed the men there or

2) 400,000 people, whether knowingly or not, participated in the greatest hoax in history, and yet all those who knew about the deception have chosen to keep the secret?

Ockham’s razor would suggest that the first explanation is much more likely to be true because it is far simpler and fits the observed facts without the need for extravagant flights of fancy. Extraordinary claims do indeed require extraordinary evidence. And I feel that those who believe in the conspiracy have clearly failed to provide this. I think Neil Armstrong was right – it would have been harder to fake it than to do it.


That Mitchell and Webb: Homeopathic A&E

December 15, 2012

While researching this week’s post I came across this sketch by Mitchell and Webb. It is very much in the sceptical spirit of this blog.


What’s in a political name?

December 8, 2012

Once upon a time in America, there was a political party that believed in a strong central government, high taxes and bold public works projects. This party was popular on the college campuses of New England and was the overwhelming choice of African American voters. It was the Republican Party.

The Republicans got started as a counterweight to the other party: the party of low taxes and limited government, the party suspicious of Eastern elites, the party that thought Washington should butt out of the affairs of private property owners – the Democrats.  David Von Drehle writing in theWashington Post, July 2004

 ______

The premise of today’s article is how I would explain contemporary political labels to a visitor from Planet Zog. The quote above illustrates the difficulty of the enterprise. It is very easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln, the president who emancipated the slaves, was a Republican. It is hard to imagine Honest Abe on Fox News. Political labels are a minefield. If you look on Wikipedia’s list of political ideologies you are bombarded with names which aim to succinctly define the worldview of their adherents; Anarcho-capitalism, Hoxhaism, Paleoconservatism, Ordoliberalism, Minarchism, Melanesian socialism are just a few of the labels you can see. They certainly played havoc with my spell check.

In 1789 King Louis XVI of France was forced to convene a form of parliament for the first time in over a century. At this assembly, the more radical delegates took up seats to the left of the King, while their conservative counterparts sat on his right. Ever since then the labels left and right for socialists and conservatives have stuck.  One common complaint that you hear is that these one-dimensional categories are inadequate to deal with our complex modern political landscape. There are more sophisticated ways of defining yourself politically; politicalcompass.org has been around for a few years now. After you have answered 61 questions, you are placed on two separate and independent axes. The Economic or Left-Right) axis measures your opinion of how the economy should be organised. “Left” is defined as the view that the economy should be run by a cooperative collective agency, typically the state, but it could also be a network of communes. “Right” is defined as the view that the economy should be left to the devices of competing individuals and organizations. The Authoritarian-Libertarian axis measures your attitudes to personal freedom. “Libertarianism” is defined as the belief that personal freedom should be maximised, while “authoritarianism” gives more weight to authority and tradition. Here is a visual representation:

Political_chart.svg

I did the test and came out as … a half-baked libertarian. I wasn’t completely happy with the wording of some questions, but anyway here is what I scored:

Economic Left/Right: 0.50

Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.95

pcgraphpngMARTINO

This is how I compare to other leaders:

axeswleaders

What I want to look at now is some of the contradictions and paradoxes present in these labels.

I want to argue that communism and fascism are in fact not so far apart. Mussolini was a radical socialist, before going on to become Il Duce. Nazi (I prefer to use the pejorative term and pronounce it “Naaazi” like Winston Chirchill), Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party) is a fascinating blend of left and right. If you look at ideologies as a circle, the extreme points of the circle do meet. Both communism and fascism share a disdain for economic freedom. Communism nationalized property explicitly. Market relations and the price mechanism were abolished. Fascism required that owners use their property in the “national interest”. The appearance of market relations may have remained, but extensive planning of all economic activities was going on. Fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, it effectively neutered the marketplace.

To begin with, the word liberal was based on the ideal of individual liberty. Classical liberals favoured laissez-faire economics, limited government and the rule of law. But somewhere in the transition to the twentieth century the word metamorphosed into a diametrically opposed meaning. Social liberalism gives the state an important role in such questions as unemployment, health care and education. This is the use of liberal in the United States, where the right employ it as a term of abuse. A few years ago The Economist had a piece calling for the word liberal to be reclaimed. The magazine argued that there ought to be a word and a indeed a political party to stand for:

 “… what liberalism used to mean. The idea, with its roots in English and Scottish political philosophy of the 18th century, speaks up for individual rights and freedoms, and challenges over-mighty government and other forms of power. In that sense, traditional English liberalism favoured small government—but, crucially, it viewed a government’s efforts to legislate religion and personal morality as sceptically as it regarded the attempt to regulate trade (the favoured economic intervention of the age). This, in our view, remains a very appealing, as well as internally consistent, kind of scepticism”

In the last three or four decades the term neo-liberal has become the favourite term for left-wingers. In the ironic words of The Economist neo-liberals are “market-worshipping, nihilistic sociopaths to a man. Many are said to believe that there is no such thing as society.” I always enjoy listening to Cayo Lara, the leader of the Spanish Communist Party (known as the United Left). He seems to be on a mission to see how many times he can use the word neo-liberal per minute. The Guardian’s resident unreconstructed Marxist, Seumus Milne, recently used this epithet to describe the EU. I really do struggle to see the EU as neo-liberal. I don’t think anyone could imagine Hayek or Friedman designing a monstrosity like the Common Agricultural Policy. If you look at one neo-liberal symbol, Margaret Thatcher, you will see that from 1979 to 1990 government spending was 40.88% of GDP on average. This is hardly a minimalist state. Under New Labour from1997 to 2010 the comparative figure was 41.29%. Thatcher may well have wanted to do more, but she was constrained by the system.

This is my mini-tour of political labels. We have seen that it is very difficult to even agree on basic terminology. And I haven’t even gone into such loaded words as democracy, freedom and progress. That will have to be in another post. But if there are any well-informed aliens out there, perhaps they can explain these labels to me.


The bastard child of Yes Minister.

December 8, 2012

I am a big fan of The Thick of It, a comedy that satirises the workings of the British Government. It has been described by Andrew Marr as the “angry, rampaging bastard child of Yes Minister.” The star of the show is undoubtedly Malcolm Tucker, a foul-mouthed Labour spin doctor. Here are a couple of videos of the man in action:


Martin’s quirky movies # 1 Theatre of Blood

December 2, 2012

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS (AND SOME HAM).

I’m sure that we have all thought about which films would be on our list of all time favourites. I have no doubt about my number one – Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s masterful exposition of the life and times of media mogul Charles Foster Kane. After that it becomes a bit more complicated, but my list would probably include The Godfather, Duck Soup, Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby, High Noon, Modern Times, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Forrest Gump and Life of Brian. This is a pretty conventional list. However, if I were compiling my top 100 there would be some other films I would want to include. They are generally less well known and don’t tend to appear in the top 100 lists, but I love them nevertheless. So this will be the first in an occasional series in which I will pay homage to these films.

For my first film I am going to go back to 1973 and an old-style horror flick starring the legendary American horror movie actor Vincent Price – Theatre of Blood. Apart from Price, the director, Douglas Hickox had a wonderful cast of talented British thespians including Diana Rigg, Jack Hawkins, Eric Sykes, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Joan Hickson and Robert Morley, at his disposal. And we mustn’t forget Diana Dors, Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. Price must have felt like a kid in a sweet shop surrounded by such talented co-stars. He discovered that between them all they had done every single Shakespeare play on the stage. He also loved getting to play eight Shakespearian characters in one go. The script was by Anthony Greville-Bell, with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.

Price plays Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who has routinely been panned for being a “ham” actor. Unable to deal with critics’ hostility and annoyed at their passing him over for an award, he decides to end it all by jumping out of a window of a high building. When he is rescued by a group of meth-drinking down-and-outs, he decides that instead of trying to top himself, he should bump off all the critics who he blames for having destroyed his career. Lionheart is a bitter man:

How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because you lack the ability to create yourselves! No Devlin, no! I did not kill Larding and the others. Punished them my dear boy, punished them. Just as you shall have to be punished.

And punished they are. Over six gallons of fake blood was used to produce the eight ghastly murders. These grisly deaths are all highly inventive with Shakespearean themes.  Here are a few of the highlights:

Troilus and Cressida: Hector Snipe (Dennis Price) is speared through chest, dragged away tied to a horse like Hector in the Trojan epic.

Richard III: Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) is drowned in a vat of wine like the Duke of Clarence. Larding loves his wine and Lionheart uses this to lure him to a wine tasting at a basement location. The bon vivant, who once fell asleep during one of Lionheart’s performances, is dunked in a keg of wine till he drowns.

Othello: Soloman Psaltery (Jack Hawkins) gets an anonymous tip-off that his wife, Maisie (Diana Dors), is being unfaithful. Lionheart pretends to be a masseur and makes it look like he is having an affair with Psaltery’s wife. The critic walks in on her while she is being massaged. Lionheart manages to convince Psaltery that there have been with more than twenty other men. The furious husband suffocates Maisie with a pillow while exclaiming “Die, you strumpet!” Lionheart doesn’t actually murder Psaltery, but his life has been destroyed and he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Henry VI Part 1: Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) arrives at her regular hair salon. She is told that her usual stylist is away and that the rather camp Butch (Lionheart) will be her hairdresser today. Moon is strapped to a salon chair and gagged to prevent her from sounding  the alarm. Lionheart switches the electricity to maximum; the metal rollers in her hair are excellent conductors and Miss Moon is burnt to a crisp like Joan of Arc.*

Titus Andronicus: When Meridith Merridew (Robert Morley) arrives home, the curtains are flung open, and Merridew is duped into thinking that he is appearing on the TV cookery show, “This Is Your Dish“. Unaware that anything strange is going on, he tucks into a succulent pie. The only thing missing are his beloved poodles. He finds a strange hair and Lionheart’s dastardly plot is revealed. He lifts the lid on the platter to reveal the mysterious ingredient in the pie. We see two poodle heads. Merridew is force fed his “babies” by way of a funnel until he chokes to death.

King Lear: The bloody finale involves an evil contraption built to blind the leader of the Critics Circle, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry). After the mayhem is over, Devlin pithily sums up the career of Lionheart:

A remarkable performance. He was overacting as usual, but he knew how to make an exit.

They just don’t make films like this any more. Charming, literate, with a wonderful cast – what’s not to like? To continue with last week’s culinary theme, this film is revenge served cold on a bed of wicked black humour and well-cooked ham. Price is in full self-parody mode. Chef Lionheart serves up his hapless victims with the gusto of Ferran Adrià crafting a fine meal. There may be a few broken eggs, but the final result is a gastronomic delight.

 ________

* Some trivia I found online:

After filming the scene, Price sent Browne a bottle of champagne. Shortly afterward, he divorced his second wife Mary (with whom he had co-authored a cookbook), so that he could marry Browne. “That’s a way to meet your wife!” Price would laugh, recalling the electrocution scene.