Archive for December, 2006

The State of Figs To Come

I was given a camera as a Christmas present. Now I have to learn how to take photographs. Here is one taken the other day of a fig.

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I didn’t know that figs also grew on cacti until just the other day.* Presumably Jacobs didn’t bother trying to get these ones into their fig rolls. And Adam and Eve covering themselves with, well, it just doesn’t bear thinking about.

* by which I mean that it wasn’t until the other day that I learned that figs could grow on cacti, not that the era of the fig-bearing cactus has suddenly come to a close.

It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be writing much more this year, so I wish you all a happy new year.


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Identity Politics

Each individual belongs to multiple groups, through birth, assimilation, or achievement. Each group to which individuals belong influences their beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions. Individuals consciously or unconsciously rank their identities into primary and secondary identities. Primary identities are frequently national, racial, and religious. In contrast, secondary identities may include such things as hunter, blogger, or coffee drinker.

And the point of this is:

Frequently, individuals’ identities are in conflict; counterinsurgents can use these conflicts to influence key leaders’ decisions.

From the US Army Counterinsurgency Manual.

Christmas Tunes

SomaFM has some decent tunes to get you into the swing of things. Try Xmas in Frisko.

One of the tunes they play is this one here:

Come Christmas time, this one doesn’t get enough play over PA systems in shops around these parts. Too much friggin’ Johnny Mathis and Roy Wood for my liking. This song is one for getting up on the table and taking the turkey by the leg for a dance.

Here’s the original version, especially for those of you who like Spongebob and Squarepants.

Christmas Lights Launch Wildcat Strike: A Christmas Light Is Not Just For Christmas, Say Strikers

A piece in the FT today on the rights of robots:

Visions of the status of robots around 2056 have emerged from one of 270 forward-looking papers sponsored by Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientist. The paper covering robots’ rights was written by a UK partnership of Outsights, the management consultancy, and Ipsos Mori, the opinion research organisation.

In the same article, a robotician asks:

Would it be acceptable to kick a robotic dog even though we shouldn’t kick a normal one?

If it’s cocking its leg and pissing over your DVD player, then why not? What about the rights of DVD players?

Now I’m not the most forward-thinking of persons of flesh and blood, but a robotic dog is not, and can never be actually a dog: it will always be a robot. Its bark, as well as its bite, will be fulfilling a human purpose (or lack of purpose, if it is some product of artistic endeavour). If it tries to bite a postman, it will do so because some human has decided that this is the sort of thing that robot dogs ought to do, and not because this is something innate to its being.

Real dogs, on the other hand, may make excellent pets, but that is not what they are born to do. Rather, making an excellent pet is just something that humans assign to dogs. Dogs themselves are just dogs, and if being a dog happens to entail making an excellent pet or biting a postman from the point of view of a human, then that is what a dog will do.

So it seems to me that there is a rather obvious difference between a dog and a robotic simulation of a dog. Nothing of a robot dog’s being will be innate, since robot dogs cannot be born in the way that, say, the dog who played Lassie was born.

It is hard to imagine, then, how anything that is not born and does not die can have rights, since it does not live in the first place. Yes, you can say that your computer just died on you, but that is not the same as your milkman just dying on you. The man who delivers the milk does not exist simply because you like to eat weetabix every morning. Likewise, a dog is not a dog because he is running after the stick you have thrown for him.

A robot dog, or a robot milkman for that matter, would exist only insofar as they fulfil a human requirement. It might be possible to make them feel pain, or cock their leg at every passing lamp-post, but these things arise because a human has decided that this is what they ought to do. So, from the beginning, they cannot have rights in any universal sense, because their existence is fully determined by humans. It is hard to conceive of a situation where this could be any other way.

Maybe you can speak of robots having rights in terms of the human purpose they meet, but this would not be all that different to saying that a hospital should not be bombed, or a car should not be driven with bald tyres. The only difference, as far as I can see, is that the need to call these ‘rights’ arises from an anthromorphic impulse on the part of the human.

Read ’em and Eat Turkey

Right. Books of the Year. Or rather, the books published this year that I read this year.

I’m confining myself to books released in 2006, in order to keep retailers, publishers, recently-published authors and their accountants happy.

I didn’t read that many books published in ’06, and most of them were pretty good. This is either because I have no taste, or because I have loads of it when it comes to buying books. One solid conclusion that can be drawn from my purchases is that if you’re a major book retailer, you’ll sell more copies of new releases if you give them a prominent display.

The only stinker I read this year was Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In short: Miss It.

The first ’06 published book I read was The Sailor In The Wardrobe, by Hugo Hamilton. And I liked it a lot. It doesn’t seem to have received the same degree of public attention as Hamilton’s previous memoir, The Speckled People, and this may be because it tackles the same Big Issues – identity, language, memory, history- with a more complex narrative voice than that of the naive child used in the first book. Yet in many ways I found it to be a more satisfying and profound work. I read it in Finland.

Then came Unspeak, by Steven Poole. It is difficult to escape Orwell’s influence these days, which means putting up with, among other things, lots of self-righteous ex-public schoolboys. Yet despite the allusion in the title, there is little of the Orwell bore in the writing. The author has put together a nifty little tome on the deliberate misuse of English language in political discourse. All such misuse he places under the rubric of Unspeak, a neologism which does exactly what it says on the tin. I read most of this in the middle of the night, sitting on the toilet of a boutique hotel room in Paris. Not that there was anything wrong with me; my wife can’t sleep with the light on, so the salle de bains was my only man.

‘Jaw-dropping’ and ‘economic history’ rarely appear in the same sentence, but Adam Tooze’s thumping The Wages of Destruction, an economic history of the Third Reich, may change all that in years to come. Whilst not clued-in enough on the historiography to know exactly what myths Tooze has set out to smash, I can tell you some of the things I learned: that Hitler’s preoccupation with the economic power of the United States was a key factor in his grand strategy for racial war; that his obsessively eliminationist anti-Semitism was in part driven by a view of Roosevelt as the head of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy – there was an overlap between anti-Semitism and anti-Westernism; that the genocide of the Jews was in part a functional component of Hitler’s plans to colonise the east, an undertaking that was intended to entail the starvation of some 30 million people; that far from the tortured soul of popular myth, Albert Speer was an out-and-out Nazi responsible for the death of millions. And there is much more. Horrifying as all this is, this is probably my book of the year.

The basic plot of Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me is a familiar one: man of God narrates his own story about how he was led into temptation. Here, the temptor is a spiky youth called Mark, and the tempted is an Ampleforth and Oxford-educated Catholic priest, who has sought for himself a dreary and apparently uninspiring parish on the east coast of Scotland. (Update: Actually, it’s the west coast. But it’s due east from here, so that’s like, east as far as I’m concerned.) As ever, O’Hagan has absolute control over his prose, intertwining all the Big Issues -history, geography, politics, memory, identity, religion- in an evocative love story, yet he makes it all seem as easy as wandering out for a pint of milk.

Then there was The Damned Utd by David Peace, a novelised account of Brian Clough’s only season with Leeds United. Peace’s Clough was the most compelling literary character I met this year – working class hero, tortured genius, chaotic drunk and quite the bastard. It would be all too easy to consign this to the realm of football literature, but this is a great book about Britain in the 1970s.

Philip Roth’s Everyman fell foul of my ‘three books by the same author in a row’ syndrome. I read the first ten pages, liked it, put it down and picked up another book, Douglas Coupland’s JPod. I read (if reading is the right word) the first 30 pages or so of JPod, didn’t like it, put it down and bought Fidel Castro’s biography with Ignacio Ramonet. That was pretty good, as far as these things go.

I’ll be back to Everyman some time before buying the farm. The outlook for JPod, however, is not good. Other 2006 books I bought but didn’t get around to read are Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen, although Franzen is in with a shout to make it before the year’s end, since I’ve got two plane journeys to make between now and then – one to Spain, and the other back to Ireland again. Unless something catches my eye in the airport on the way back, his will be the last book I read in 2006.

Read about what other Irish bloggers have been reading and recommending here.

One Of The Extortionists Expressed A Liking For Battered Sausages

His family were made to swear on a holy picture they’d co-operate.

Suzanne Breen reports on the details of the hostage taking. Why do I find this detail hard to digest? It’s like when you read those reports of secretive meetings between politicians at restaurants, where they are purported to have discussed some matter of earth-shattering importance, and the reporter mentions that one of them wolfed down his plate of grilled red snapper and the other hardly touched his salade niçoise. The function of the extra detail is, among other things, to confer a sense of authenticity to the account of events. I was, like, totally there, I can even remember what it is they had to eat.

Now, I am not saying that Suzanne Breen is making this up. The most likely explanation is that she is reporting what she has been told. And it may even be true. But it strikes me as an anachronism. Swearing on a holy picture is like, soooo 1950s. Unless I am unacquainted with a particularly conservative strain of young militant Northern Irish Catholicism, the type of person to demand that you swear on a holy picture would have his hostages on their knees running through back-to-back decades of the rosary. And he wouldn’t be the best person to enlist for a hostage operation because he’d be like, 90.

Or, this may be some sort of arcane Provo tradition. But I happen to know people who have been taken hostage by the Provos, and I never heard them tell the bit about how they were made to swear by the picture of the Sacred Heart upon the wall. Normally the gun to the relative’s head, and your own, is enough to ensure that you comply with their wishes.


Time Magazine has just informed me that I am their Person of the Year. Unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they didn’t consult me in advance, so this has taken me by surprise. But I’m flattered.

History’s Most Famous Virgin in ‘Not Virgin’ Shocker

‘As for the role of Mary in worship, believers who are happy to base their faith on unwritten traditions can easily accommodate Marian cult with the rest of their Christianity. Indeed, the idea of a loving maternal hand suitably counterbalances for them the intimidating image of the severe male heavenly judge.’

Geza Vermes in today’s Guardian.

When I was confirmed at age 11 (In Ireland people are very advanced. If 11 is old enough to swear off the drink, and therefore old enough to get drunk, it is therefore old enough to get confirmed), I had no idea why I was being confirmed (indeed, this point is still hazy), since the teacher charged with teaching us about it decided that there was no need to focus on that particular piece of the curriculum. Instead, he preferred to read us the story of Fatima and how Mary had decided to appeared to kids in Portugal. I remember one horrifying part of it, where one of the kids had a vision of hell.

The vision itself was described by one of the children as:

demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent.’

Obviously enough, I have just looked this bit up on the internet. Up until a few minutes ago, my recollection of how I imagined the vision of hell as described by the kids and then relayed to us by the teacher was more like a tottering stegosaurus in flames, but no less terrifying for that.

Through history, Mary’s apparitions have performed certain historical functions, such as that of national icon, but this particular apparition, as told by the children and then by my teacher, was as Our Lady of The Anti-Communists. As the link suggests, she also performed the function of saving Portugal from getting dragged into World War II, something for which fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar was rather grateful.

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December 2006