Book Notes 5: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

I read a review of this book in The Guardian years ago (this one, I think). It sounded absolutely fantastic, and I’ve wanted to read it ever since. But I only got round to buying it recently.

I was aware, of course, of the danger of approaching a work with unreasonably-raised expectations, so I tried not to. You can’t make yourself think “This won’t be very good,” when you actually think, “This should be pretty good.” The trick, therefore, is to convince yourself to have a slight seed of doubt. I’m not totally sure how well that can ever work, though.

I did enjoy the book, however: it starts with a light, easy style, and has an endearing central character in Sumire. Continue reading

A discussion of (possibly a rant about) ID

But not cards, for a change. I was listening to a programme (essentially a religious one) on Radio 4 recently, about ‘Intelligent’ Design (ID).

It was the second time that day that I had heard SETI pulled in to support ID. The thesis seems to be that, since SETI searches for meaningful information hidden within random noise, it is “the same as” the search for a designer amidst the seeming randomness of the universe. The proponents of ID think that the complexity of the real world means that there must be an intelligence behind it. But the main thing these people need to learn is that complexity does not equal design.

Or not necessarily, at any rate. They are doubly confusing themselves — and others, who may be unsure about the realities of science and the tricks of creationists. They look at the search for order among the chaos, and liken it to — really, identify it with — the belief that order lies behind the chaos.

Let’s put it another way. SETI searches through random noise and attempts to find ordered data, all the while aware that the ordered data may not be there; indeed, to date it has not been. It further proposes that, if ordered data is found, then that may imply that there is an intelligence behind it.

The ID proponents observe the order in the universe and assume that there must be an intelligence behind it; they also see the randomness in the universe, and jump to the conclusion that SETI is doing the same thing as they are.

It is arrant nonsense, of course, but then ID is, from start to finish. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing in the laws of physics, chemistry or biology that precludes the existence of a designer, a creator, a supreme being: a deity, in short. As, indeed, there is no need for science to be incompatible with belief in, or the existence of, a deity. Back when I was a Catholic, I remember one of my primary-school teachers explaining that, while the Bible says that God created the world in six days, a day to God might be a million years to us. Don’t take it literally, in other words.

And therein lies the problem: creationists and believers in ID (who are just very thinly-disguised creationists) take the Bible (though which version, I have to ask?) literally.

Which is a bit like taking any of humanity’s great history of myths literally. Why stop with the Christian Bible, and their strange god, “God”1? Let’s take the Norse gods literally, for example. So the next time you’re caught in a thunderstorm, remember, it’s not just the random discharge of static electricity in the atmosphere: Thor is after you.

Or the Greeks: they had some great ones. When you light the gas to cook tea tonight, say a prayer of thanks to Prometheus, OK?

Oh look, we seem to be back at my latest Book Notes post, American Gods. Which makes sense, since it is American fundamentalist Christers who want to foist their god on the rest of their country — and by extension, on the rest of the world. By the not-so-subtle device of using the law to control what can and can’t be taught in schools. What is wrong with these people? Have they never heard of the separation of church and state?

Fortunately the US courts seem to be holding the line of sanity so far; but oh my non-existent, speculative all-powerful creator-figure: I hope we don’t get a branch of the Christian Taliban trying to introduce this shite into our schools over here. I have children to bring up, so I have a direct interest in these things.

Let’s not teach our kids to be stupid.

1. As the NME used to say.

Book Notes 4: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog since the time when he was writing this book — as, I’m sure, have most of us, what with his site being the number one hit on Google when you search for ‘neil’.

But I hadn’t actually read the book until now. I had read the first chapter online, and I had an idea roughly what it was about: real gods (maybe all gods) walking the Earth in the present day.

And it’s a stormer of a book. The pages just keep turning, the quotes are quotable (girl-Sam’s “I believe” speech is particularly fine) and myths are mashed up in glorious style.

It’s shortcomings are, perhaps, that it slows down a bit too much in the middle section; and Wednesday and Shadow make perhaps too many visits to down-at-heel gods without anything very specific happening during them. It reads like a road movie in places (which is fine), and it would probably make a good one.

There are surprises right up to the end, though, and I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future.

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That about wraps it up for freedom

Start saying goodbye, then, to civil liberties in this country. Oh, maybe not now, and maybe not even that soon; but when the identity cards bill is passed, and the database has been built 1 then the infrastructure will be in place for the world’s largest ever experiment in social control.

We already have near-ubiquitous surveillance, with constantly-improving automatic recognition: of faces and of vehicle number plates. Add to that the national identity database with its biometrics, and the growing collection of DNA data, and I foresee the potential for a future that even Orwell in his worst nightmare wouldn’t have believed possible.

Pessimistic? Yes, certainly. It may be that the public will rebel against it when they realise how much it will cost, for example. I gather that that is what happened in Australia. But even if they do, once the legislation is in place, how can it be stopped?  It seems likely that the best we can hope for there is a change of government. And realistically, that means the Tories.

After all this time there’s no way on this Earth that I’m going to put my faith in that lot. No matter that they might have voted against the government on the bill, if they get into power and the act is in force, there isn’t a chance — not a chance in all the worlds of the putative multiverse — that they’ll repeal the legislation.

In fact, that is the true nightmare scenario: it’s possible that Blair and Brown are not actually malicious about this, just stupid and corrosively misguided. Imagine, though, what it would have been like if Thatcher’s government had had ubiquitous, mandatory ID and surveillance. Imagine (as I’ve suggested before) if that had been the situation during the miners’ strike. Or when MI5 were undermining the Callaghan government, for that matter, although that’s a slightly different nightmare.

And it just goes on and on: the Metropolitan Police are now going to drug-test their own officers. Now, you can safely argue that police officers shouldn’t be under the influence while on duty: but it is a clear violation of their personal liberty, and it just adds to the way in which our national culture is becoming more and more authoritarian. Even totalitarian.

1. I realise that that requires success in the biggest-ever government IT project, but bear with me.

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Drink, Sex and Elections

How quickly do events overrun the tardy blogger.  A few weks ago, when Charles Kennedy went public about his drinking, I started writing a piece about him, and his revelations’ potential effect on the Liberal Democrats.  I didn’t post it that day, and by the following evening things had changed so dramatically that what I said was almost useless as a post.

Later I started a replacement piece, but I never got round to completing and posting that, either.  Today’s by-election victory is slightly ironic, then, considering that what I was originally saying was  mainly that he really had to resign because he had become an electoral liability to his party.   Add to that the Lib Dem leadership election and its Shock! Horror! personal revelations, and many would have expected them to do badly at the polls the next time they had a chance.

And then we get Dunfermline.  Which suggests to me that the personal affairs of the actual and potential party leadership are minor items at best in the eyes of the voters.  And also that people (in Scotland, at least) have had enough of Blair’s repulsive Tory-lite policies, and are (not surprisingly) unimpressed by, and suspicious of, Cameron’s cuddly stealth-Tory aproach.

I hoped, in my original piece, that the Lib Dems would be able to recover from their problems, because they’re an important force in British politics.  Not least because they’re still the only ones taking a principled stand against ID cards, on which everyone but No2ID seems to have gone silent recently.  Now I’d have to add the hope that the new guy, Willie Rennie, can get himself established in the Commons in time to vote against the next reading of the Bill.

I never thought that, in my life, I would be toasting a Labour by-election defeat, while at the same time bemoaning their privatisation and (lack of) civil-liberties policies; but we live in interesting times.  Times in which Britain desperately needs a third force in politics; and it remains the case — perhaps more so than ever, today — that the Liberal Democrats can be that force.

But I wish they weren’t needed: I want the Labour party back.

Book Notes 2: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Yes, and only a day after the last one.  It took me a bit longer than that to read it, mind you.

A science-fiction book that was nominated for the Booker: amazing. And have no doubt about it: this is a science-fiction book. Just as Nineteen Eighty Four is; and Orwell’s masterpiece is perhaps the best reference point for Cloud Atlas. The appearance of O’Brien’s Goldstein‘s book within Winston Smith’s story may well have been a model for Mitchell’s multiply-embedded stories.

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Book Notes 1: A Dance to the Music of Time vol 1, by Anthony Powell

This year I’m going to try to record all the books I read, and write mini-reviews of them. I’m not quite going for the thing, because I doubt that I can actually manage one a week, what with one thing and another. But I ought to be able to get through a few more than last year, since I’m not doing an OU course.  And in fact it’s nearly the end of January, and I have already read three books and started a fourth: so, not too bad, then.  I’m just a bit behind on posting about them.

For Christmas I got volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time: A Question of Upbringing.  I started reading it on Christmas day, so we’ll have to allow the year to start and end there.

I have been hearing quite a lot about Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume masterpiece recently: there was a whole Radio 4 programme about it, which I heard bits of twice. And I notice John Peel’s Desert Island Discs listing on Wikipedia, recently, and Dance was the book he chose.

So I was keen to read it, despite having seen the TV adaptation a few years ago, and thought it seem very shallow and superficial.
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The Rocky Pogue to Brixton

This was written before Christmas, and is only being posted now.  Such is… something.  My ability to get things done, probably.

The Brixton Academy oozes rock ‘n’ roll history from its very walls; and a lot of that history is — or closely mirrors — my own. I saw my first London gig there: The Ramones, in 1987 (and I saw them a few more times there, too, I can tell you). The Sugarcubes spent a bare hour on stage, and it was one of the best hours of live music I’ve ever seen. The Pixies took the place apart and restored my faith in rock ‘n’ roll when I didn’t even realise I was losing it. Stiff Little Fingers — who were the first band I ever saw live (Glasgow Apollo, 1980) — played a farewell gig there (OK, they later reformed, but lets not worry too much about that). At one James gig there, a moshpit full of lovemuppets collapsed on top of me.

But I’ve seen The Pogues there more often than anyone else.

And The Pogues, it seems, have reformed, and are touring. To Brixton, then, with swisstone. I saw them so many times in the eighties and early nineties that I probably wouldn’t have bothered this time. But back in the summer karmicnull gave me a CD by an American band called the Dropkick Murphys, which I love; and guess who was the support band?

The Murphys take US hardcore (in the punk sense) and Irish (and a touch of Scottish) music, and mash them together in the same way The Pogues first did with UK punk and Irish music two decades ago. Loud thrashing guitars meld with bagpipes and rebel lyrics. There are about six or seven of them, and they move around the Academy’s huge stage like it’s their playground.

That said, and though they rocked mightily, the cavernous space of the Academy did them no favours. They would, I think, be enjoyed best in a smaller venue. About a tenth of the size, say. I found it hard work to appreciate some of the songs I don’t know, so I suspect that if you don’t know their work at all, they would be very hard work indeed, live. Then there’s their version of ‘The Wild Rover’. Maybe Americans aren’t as used as we are to every dodgy folk band or drunken denizen of an Irish pub singing this one: but you’d think that when your forté is speeded up, punked up versions of Irish songs, you wouldn’t do a version of it that is, frankly, plodding.

No matter: I’ve now heard them do ‘Fields of Athenry’, live, and am happy.

As to The Pogues: what with one thing and another, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect, after all this time. But I shouldn’t have worried: it was like coming home: both for them and for me.

Let me say this, in no uncertain terms: I don’t think Shane is anywhere near as fucked up as we think he is. Yes, he’s done himself damage over the years, and I’ve seem him interviewed on TV and been embarassed and wished they had left him alone. But that night, although he moved with something of an Ozzy-Osbourne-esque shamble, he was totally switched on. He didn’t miss a single word, as far as I could tell, and the only mistake he made was that he messed up the first verse of the very last song, ‘Fiesta’; and that’s the kind of thing that any singer can do.

Physically, too, he was very together. During one song he kept playing with the mike stand, for example, and seemed to constantly be on the verge of knocking it over: but he always caught it. And at one point he balanced a glass of water on his head.

But what of the music? It was, of course, superb. I say “of course” because The Pogues consists of some of the most talented musicians in rock ‘n’ roll, and perhaps the English language’s greatest living poet.

One of their greatest abilities is to make London seem magical, mystic ghostly: songs like ‘Lullaby of London’ is a fine example of this. And ‘London You’re A Lady’ and ‘Misty Morning, Albert Bridge’ are hymns to the city that are rooted in more mundane concerns; but they still evoke a lyrical beauty. In a way the effect is not unlike that of Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802‘. Yes, I think Shane McGowan is as important a poet as Wordsworth, all right?

There was a spectre hanging over the show, though: it was nearly Christmas, and it was unthinkable that they wouldn’t do ‘Fairytale of New York’. But who would sing Kirsty McColl’s part? The song is inherently a duet; there is no way it could be done without two voices.

Tony told me he had heard that Cerys Matthews of Catatonia sang it at the Cardiff gig, but he didn’t think that she was touring with them.

So the end of the third encore and second hour drew close. “This is ‘Fairytale of New York'”, Shane growled, to cheers. Then one of the others introduced “Miss Ella Finer.” One of The Pogues is Jem Finer, as I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve read this far; so I suspected this was his daughter (and internet sources confirm this).

She wasn’t Kirsty, of course, but she did a fine job. Some of her vowels were on the plummy side (“Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our larst”, if you see what I mean): but you can’t hold that against her.

So as far as I’m concerned, The Pogues are back. Now, let’s just hope they write some new material and put a new album out.

Freedom Tickling

Went to see Jon Stewart of The Daily Show on Sunday. He was doing one night in London, with, as it turned out, the executive producer and the head writer of the show.

It was good, though it could cynically be seen as an extended advert for their book, America: The Book. The largest part of the 75-minute show consisted of readings of extracts from the book. Those were enough to make me want to buy it, but the the funniest lines were probably in Stewart’s introductory piece. The final section, consisting of questions from the audience, showed that both he and his co-stars are generally witty and able to think on their feet.

If volume of applause is a measure, though, the highlight of the night for much of the audience was a brief guest appearance. “For this next section we’re going to ask for help from a member of the audience. We picked him before we started, so don’t get up.” Then a stocky, black-clad figure walked on. From my position high on the balcony, and with my notedly-poor facial-recognition skills, I couldn’t tell who it was (though Frances, sitting next to me, could). I’d have recognised his voice, though. Ricky Gervais is officially more popular in London than Jon Stewart (which is not a surprise).

Gervais read the “funny names” from the book. This is a section on how US newscasters, weather forecasters and so on, can’t have anything like an ordinary name. The authors identified formulas for the name-construction for the various roles. “A monosyllabic kitchen-related verb, followed by two unconnected words. Eg ‘Chop Muddybottom.'”

As further evidence, were it needed, of my poor celeb-recognition, apparently I literally rubbed shoulders with Alan Rickman on the way out; then Frances said, “There’s Salman Rushdie over there.” “Where?” “There: standing in the middle of the road, with all the people round him.”

I did even eventually see him, and recognised him. And while I accept that I’m bad at recognising faces — and celebrities in particular — I would contend that I just hadn’t noticed him in the crowd at first, and recognised him perfectly well once I knew he was there..

Oh, and the title of this post? “We don’t torture. We like to call it, uh, ‘freedom tickling'”