Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sirrah! Thy iPhone Doth Offend!

I have a friend (hi David) who loathes people who meander slowly down the street with their eyes glued to their iPhone.  I don't know if I would go so far as to say I hate them but they certainly irritate me despite the fact (mandatory disclosure notice) that on occasion I have been one of them.  Despite my occasional lapses it is something that I try not to do as I consider it rude.  Common good manners would tend to indicate that one should look where one is going.  Common good manners are, however, becoming increasingly uncommon.

Keen eyed readers will note that I didn't preface that last sentence with the word "unfortunately".  This might seem a little strange because I actually value good manners quite highly.  However I am somewhat ambivalent in general terms as to whether bad manners are actually a bad thing.  On the fact of it of course bad manners are bad, that's why we call them "bad".  They're inconsiderate, rude and selfish.  On the other hand bad manners are an indication of how relaxed and tolerant our society has become.

Manners are not something we're born with, they're something we learn.  Or to put it another way, they are something we are taught.  People have been teaching manners (and its more socially acceptable cousin etiquette) for pretty much as long as the human race has been around.  Why?  What is it that made our distant ancestors with their shorter lifespans and limited time for the imparting of essential wisdom decide that manners of some sort (varying with the society of course but every society has some) deserved to be squeezed in between how to grub efficiently for bugs and which types of berries were poisonous?  I suspect the answer is, fear.

Good manners and intricate etiquette are generally indicative of a violent and brutal society.  When the simple act of walking down the street in a particular fashion can provoke somebody to run a sword into your guts then learning the appropriate modes of behaviour is very important indeed.  The more elaborate the ritual, the more wincing the care taken not to offend the more likely it is that buried somewhere in that culture's past are grim penalties for transgression.  People learned good manners not because they wanted to be nice to each other but to reduce the likelihood that any of the neighbours would murder them.  Conversely they would be narrowly watching those self same neighbours for any indication of a slight which would require avenging.

Manners thus go from being the affectations of an effete society to an essential survival tip in a vicious and essentially lawless world.  When your life depends on not giving offence then manners are very important indeed.  Conversely as the organs of civilisation (or at least civilisation's idiot stepbrother, government) strengthened, as the state became more able and more willing to enforce its own codes of acceptable behaviour and withdraw punishment for transgressions from the hands of individuals it became less necessary for those individuals to do likewise.  Many people think that we, as a species, have got ruder.  I doubt it.  I rather think we were always this rude but now we're less scared.  Possibly surly ill manners are the hallmarks of a successful civilisation.

For those people deeply offended by the inconsiderate bastards who insist on texting as they're walking down the streets one of two options remains.  Either suck it up or round up your kinsmen, dependents and vassals and lay waste to the offender's huts and crops.  If you choose option two I know at least one person who will ride with you.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Davros Guide to Child Rearing

You can see them coming for miles.  Their sprawling bulk dominates to streetscape.  Heavy duty tires bite into the ground as though avenging a personal injury.  Dogs, children, pedestrians and even cars scatter to give them room as these modern behemoths thunder down the street.

Exactly when was it decided that prams needed to have the approximate size and manouvreability of aircraft carriers?  I see them on the weekend, frequently at the cafe or rather outside the cafe as the person responsible for its movement attempts to squeeze something that needs a truck bay in through an entrance designed for human beings.  Honestly if you gave one of these to a Gipsy he'd hitch a horse to the front of it and move his family in.

As for the baby, the putative reason why most parents now need a heavy vehicle licence to walk to the shops, well the most I can say is that its probably in there somewhere.  Certainly the prams are festooned with baby accessories (as well as shopping, superfluous clothing, laptops, dry cleaning and occasionally machine parts) but its entirely possible that the proud parents accidentally left the kid at home and just brought the pram.  Alternatively its possible the baby is in the prams basement playing pool with a few mates and growing hydroponic dope.

If anybody wonders at the proliferation of monstrous four wheel drives (or SUVs as they are now known in a pathetic aping of our American cousins) the answer is simple.  Nothing smaller will fit the pram in.  A seven seater SUV (now I'm doing it) will comfortably carry two adults, one infant and a monster pram to help the first three make that arduous journey from the car door to the entranceway of a shop.

At this point some people might review my own childless status and suggest that I have little sympathy with parents and am harbouring a secret inner resentment.  This is absolutely untrue.  I am harbouring a very public outer resentment.  I am five feet, seven inches tall and it irritates me that someone who would barely come up to my knee if they could stand upright at all somehow contrives to occupy ten times as much space as I do.

Still progress progresses I suppose.  The next step will be to motorise the pram so the parents are spared the chore of pushing.  After that we can rig up some sort of mental control so that the babies can steer themselves about the place allowing their parents to retire to a cafe in peace.  From there its just a small step to adding some extra protection and a weapon for self defence.  Holy shit!  We just created Daleks!  At least the parents will be able to relax and have a latte while their infants are out conquering the galaxy.

Garms of Morpheus

One of the things I love about Winter is the fact that I get to wear clothes to bed.  I find something strangely enjoyable about putting on specific garments (or "garms" as I call them in the privacy of my own head) just to go to bed.  Let's face it, it is an indulgence.  For millennia people simply flopped down in whatever pathetic rags they happened to be wearing to catch a few hours of exhausted sleep before returning to the fields.  A goodly proportion of the world's population still do this today.  To have specific sleeping clothes really is rather a luxury.

For me they're also a symbol of relaxation; a sign that I have completed (or more likely, put off) whatever tasks I had to perform throughout the day and may now relax for whatever time is left before I crawl into bed.  I revel in this little taste of luxury as I tick down the remaining minutes of my day.  This is helpful to me because I actually resent sleep.  The only reason why I sleep at all is because if I don't I tend to fall asleep.  If I have to sleep I would much rather do it in specially designed clothes in my bed than, for example, while wearing a suit at the office.  I know from experience that this is a less acceptable option.  For starters my colleagues have complained about the snoring.

So there I am, tucked up in bed warm and snuggly waiting to be enfolded in the arms of Morpheus as I believe the saying goes.  I have to say he's not the most satisfying bed partner I've ever had and he often calls at inconvenient moments but on the other hand he doesn't expect conversation or to be taken out to dinner either.  And he never complains about the fact that I'm always wearing sloppy pyjama type clothes whenever he turns up.  Frankly I don't know why he puts up with me.  He doesn't even complain about the fuzzy dragon slippers.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fish Parasite of Judah?

Just when Bob Marley probably thought things couldn't get any worse (what with being dead and all) comes news that is certain to perk him right up.  It was recently announced that he is going to get a minuscule parasite that lives on fish named after him.  This is great news, the name Bob Marley shall finally be plucked from obscurity.  Now all we have to do is pluck the parasites off the fish.

I can't help wondering how much of an honour it is to give your name to some tiny parasitic fish sucker.  From now on whenever I hear the name Bob Marley I'm going to think "Oh yes, the fish parasite guy".  Not quite how he thought he'd be remembered I'm sure.  Still I guess we'd discovered (and shot) most of the impressive lifeforms by the time Marley died.  He probably had a choice between the fish parasite and some microbe that lives on the arse of a dung beetle.

The other thing I wonder about is why do we call them parasites.  In this politically correct age I would have expected a term like "differently symbiotic".  I don't have much patience with political correctness as a general rule but if I don't stand up for the fish parasite who will?  After all tigers insert sharp protuberances into deer and feed on them at leisure but we don't call them deer parasites, we call them carnivores a name that has a far more alpha male ring to it.

Still I suppose there are worse things than parasites (says the guy who works for a law firm) because when one looks at the magnificent, top of the food chain beasts that stride proudly through the wilderness we start to see a common denominator.  Most of them are on the edge of extinction.  We tend to kill carnivores, we seem to have less luck with parasites.  It's entirely possible (or to put it another way, entirely impossible) that tigers and their ilk dream of being fish parasites, living quiet unobtrusive lives unhindered by gun happy humans.  Actually forget my concerns about the fish parasites, they're doing OK.  I'll bet they're not endangered.  There's still plenty of fish around and, since they get by on a purely seafood diet, they're probably smarter than we are.

Well at Least the Heroin is Safe

The United States has recently announced that Afghanistan has the status of a major ally.  This is good news for Afghanistan which in most people's eyes barely has the status of a country.  Nevertheless this is a clever move by the United States.  In one swoop they have secured their nation's heroin supply.

As one looks over the list of major allies of the United States one finds names like Pakistan, Egypt and Israel (and, um, Australia).  One can't help thinking that the Americans use the term "major ally" in circumstances where most other people would probably select a phrase like "serious liability".

I can think of many terms to describe Afghanistan that you could put the word "major" in front of.  Heroin producer for example or policy disaster.  Shithole is yet a third.  Somehow "ally" doesn't really get a mention.  Afghanistan isn't even allied with itself much less anyone else.  A more accurate statement would have been something like "the United States has announced that approximately two blocks of downtown Kabul is a major ally".

Reality aside there are still good reasons why the US shouldn't have made that announcement.  It is the diplomatic equivalent of nailing your colours to the mast.  When the United States leaves (and it will) and Afghanistan disintegrates into a tribal bloodbath (and it will) then whoever is president or secretary of state will probably be able to do without snide reminders from the other side of politics that this gore spattered hellhole is a major ally.  At some point the Americans are going to have to cut Afghanistan adrift (in which case they will look like fools) or commit to a pretty much permanent occupation force in order to prevent their "major ally" from cannibalising itself to death.  At some point they're going to have to leave anyway and the more blood they lose before that happens the worse they're going to look.

There are some countries it is better not to have as allies.  They are the geopolitical equivalent of those family members you hastily put into rehab before meeting outsiders.  If the United States wants a policy that will work in Afghanistan then they should pull all their troops out and attempt to destabilise the country from the outside.  This is what is going to happen anyway but at least they would be able to claim a policy success.

It isn't as though any of this should be news to the Americans or anybody else.  Despite having lousy weather and exporting nothing except heroin and refugees Afghanistan seems to have exerted an almost mystical attraction to the superpower of the day.  From Alexander the Great onwards they all left faster than they went in.  I don't understand the attraction as even Afghans don't seem to like the place that much.  Presumably there are geopolitical reasons for getting involved in Afghanistan (geopolitical being a word which loosely means "something stupid we're getting up to in a foreign country").  Of course a lawless and anarchic Afghanistan makes it the perfect hideout for socially unacceptable groups like Al Qaida and the UN Security Council which is why the US went in in the first place.  It would be churlish of me to point out that so far almost as many Americans have died in Afghanistan as did in the September 11 attacks.

I suspect that the reason why empires have continually invaded Afghanistan is because they think they can effectively deal with the inhabitants by invading the country.  This is a fallacy, Afghanistan is too weak to break.  There is no nerve centre you can effectively hit to change anything on a fundamental level. Alexander's empire is gone, so is the Mongol empire, the Mughal empire (which originated in Afghanistan), the British empire and the Russian empire.  What remains?  Afghanistan.

Let the last word go to an Afghan tribal chief from part way through the 19th century.  He was talking to a British officer at the height of that empire who was expounding on all the benefits that would come the country's way if it took its place as part of Britain's colonial empire.  The chief acknowledged that there were many great advantages that could come from British rule but, "we would rather stay as we are than accept a ruler strong enough to tell us what to do."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Terminal Disease Got Better

Hypochondria is a great way to while away the idle hours.  The tiniest sniffle, the faintest headache, the merest hint of a flesh eating bacteria chewing my face off; all these things evoke a deep and fascinated interest in me.  They send me scurrying to the internet for frantic attempts at self diagnosis.  Note that they don't actually send me scurrying to a doctor, I may be a hypochondriac but I'm not an idiot.  Browsing the net trying to decipher which particular terminal disease I'm suffering from today is a great way to spend the afternoon and not a whit less productive than anything else I'm likely to be doing.

There is the frantic search on for mention of my appropriately vague symptoms as I clutch myself to stop my, no doubt, liquifying organs from seeping through my skin.  Then there is the thrill of discovery as I get a match and confidently diagnose myself with Creutzfeld Jakob Disease despite the fact that I gave up cannibalism decades ago (the neighbours complained).  Once successfully diagnosed there is the added joy of nobly enduring my terminal disease without dropping a hint that my (barely discernable) symptoms might indicate something serious while spending my few remaining hours writing heartfelt farewell letters to my friends and family.

Evetually of course I have to accept that on balance I'm likely to live through the night and I must have contracted one of the milder strains of rabies.  At this point I regret not having made more of my symptons while I had them and thus garnerig a little sympathy before my utterly unexpected recovery.  Also of course I have to dash around madly gathering up all those embarrassing (and occasionally incriminating) farewell letters and burning them.  This has got so bad that my neighbours think I'm running a private crematorium in my living room.  Then I get the sniffles and the whole cycle starts again.

There is just one note of caution I would like to sound before encouraging you to take up hypochondria as a hobby.  From time to time your internet search will turn up a disease or condition which not only dovetails with your symptoms but actually sounds rather plausible.  When that happens it can be absolutely terrifying.

Now to Find the Satan Particle

Well they've finally done it.  After spending billions of dollars, digging more tunnels than the inmates at Colditz and almost dumping the planet into a mini black hole the team at the Large Hadron Collider have finally achieved something more than just sitting around bashing their bosons.  The elusive Higgs boson, the so called "God Particle" (so called mainly by people who don't know what they're talking about) has finally been captured, photographed, tagged and released back into the wild so we can study its mating habits.  The excitement in Geneva had to be believed to be seen.  Professor Higgs himself shed a tear and the festivities went on into the early hours of the afternoon.

One can understand the delight of Professor Higgs.  Finally, after all these years, it looks as though he has given his name to something which, on the balance of probabilities, is more likely to exist than not.  Or something like that.  Of course this is only the beginning.  It is not definite proof.  Nevertheless the results gained so far are what sub atomic particle physicists called a five sigma result (and they wonder why they got beaten up in school).  This is the way physicists measure the likelihood of a previously untried experiment being accurate.  The more sigmas you get the less likely it is that you got your results purely by coincidence.  Five sigmas is pretty damned high, to get any more you would have to have a signed autograph from the Higgs boson itself.  For the layman a five sigma result can be defined as "far more certain than the likelihood of your reprobate son dropping in for a visit and only slightly less likely than the chance of rain at a garden wedding."  Any result greater than five sigmas (particularly in sub atomic particle physics) is likely to actually warp reality itself.  Which means that while the experiment will still be valid it is possible the universe it is taking place in won't be.

Once somebody recreates the experiment and gets the same results it will be officially proved.  At least, something will be officially proved.  It isn't as though they now have a box of Higgs bosons hanging around that they can hand out to schoolchildren touring the collider.  In fact they haven't actually encountered a Higgs boson at all.  The Higgs boson is a shy and retiring beast, rather like like leopards at the national park I visited in Nepal many years ago.  The rangers assured us there were leopards there, they found occasional tracks and droppings but nobody should expect to actually see one.  As it is with the leopard so it is with the Higgs boson.  What has actually been discovered is the sort of effects one might expect to encounter if a Higgs boson had recently been in the room but had just stepped to answer a call of nature.

So that's it then, mystery solved, universe explained, shut down the collider, unshackle the scientists and let them go home to their families.  Well, not quite.  There are still questions to answer.  Of course there are.  There is a model for how the Higgs boson is supposed to behave.  Some of the results have shown certain deviations from this model.  It is not certain what "type" of Higgs boson we have encountered.  At some point you just have to assume that the universe is simply screwing with us.  But perhaps this is a good thing.  After all we have that atom smasher and all those tunnels, if there wasn't anything left to do with them there would be nothing for it but to turn the thing into an amusement park ride for kids.  I'd buy a ticket for sure if I got the opportunity to play a game of pin the sub atomic particle trail on the boson.