Tuesday, 27 May 2008

What? Really?!?

File under 'Oh My! Haven't Things Changed!'

Apparently, the Communist Party in Russia is complaining about anti-Soviet propaganda in the new Indiana Jones film. (Here for the BBC report, here for a Toronto Star article.) You can read about it at the Communist Party's website; I can't, because it's in Russian and I don't understand Russian, but I loved the look of it. (It's where I got this picture.) It was the vision of.... sweet nostalgia.

The Star explains:
Russian Communist party members condemned the new Indiana Jones' film on Friday as crude anti-Soviet propaganda that distorted history and called for it to be banned from Russian screens.
"What galls is how together with America we defeated Hitler, and how we sympathized when Bin Laden hit them. But they go ahead and scare kids with Communists. These people have no shame," said Viktor Perov, a Communist Party member in Russia's second city of St Petersburg.

One is tempted to ask whether they bothered to wait for the translation. Chuckle, chuckle.

But, I mean, really? Complaining that the Western capitalists distort history, and calling for a ban? They have no 'shame'? Oh, please! What happened to the days when they simply wouldn't let the fetishised commodities of American capitalist pigs' Cultural Imperialism anywhere near the People's Screens, and in silent retaliation fund a insurgency movement in a Latin American country lead by a US puppet regime?

(It almost makes one nostalgic for the 1980s and the Cold War. Almost. No.)

Is this the end of history as we know it?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


It's not often in excretera that I get to leave the obnoxious stench of my anger and bask in sweetly-fragranced joy, but yesterday was one of those days. For those of you that saw my Facebook update the other day, I've spent the last 72 hours happily reflecting on watching Star Wars with my sons for the first time.

(For those of you for whom that means nothing, or, instead of joining in my jubilation would see this as another reason to pour scorn, can I kindly ask you not to piss on my parade, just this once? Please...)

If, on the other hand you are a man of a certain age, you'll appreciate where I'm coming from. As I sat there on a very small couch with one arm each boy (Will 4, Jonah nearly 3, for those of you keeping score) I definitely had one of those 'Yes, these most certainly are my progeny' moments. They were completely and impressively committed to the cause. (And I say that even though Jonah fell asleep somewhere soon after Ben rescues Luke from the Sandpeople, and waking up just as Ben is confronting Vader. But when he was awake, there was nothing less that 100% commitment. Read on.)

I shouldn't be too surprised that they were prepared to get right into it. Heeding the dire warnings of a friend (thanks Nathan!) whose son's first attempted indoctrination was greeted with almost total indifference, I was determined to approach the problem strategically, carefully building a solid foundation that could only ever lead to success. Weaning Will from firemen last year, I planted an interest in knights, and fed this with regular visits to castles and a medieval tournament recreation. Once that had nicely blossomed, I trimmed and tweaked its development, and introduced plenty of space games and images, culminating in a visit to the Space Age exhibit at the Weston Park Museum. And this week I harvested the fruit of my hard work. And it was yummy.

(Jonah? He's at that stage where I have no influence on him whatsoever. Only Will has any say over that boy now, so that wasn't really a problem. Note to Freudians: only the eldest son, it seems, has an Oedipal conflict with the father. The next son's drama is with the first. I'm scouring Greek literature to find a suitable metaphor. Watch this space.)

I had to decide which Star Wars film, of course, now that there are 6 to choose from, and though many purists will castigate me for even considering showing him anything other than Episode IV, please consider: there are plenty of four-year-old-friendly moments in The Phantom Menace (pod races, lots more lightsaber action). Plus, Will is very interested in origins -- he is the target audience for prequels. And consider kids today, growing up on Toy Story and effects-laden real action films, would they be at all impressed with the simplicity of IV - VI? Also on my mind was that there are also some not-so four-year-old-friendly moments (Anakin leaving mummy, Qui-Gon Ginn getting sliced in two), so I went with IV. A wise choice, in the end, I think.

Will never stopped asking questions which constantly tested the limits of my knowledge -- do you know what planet the band from the Mos Eisley canteen are from? Well then... (In brushing up on my Star Wars knowledge, so I can be the all-knowing Daddy my sons think I am, for this week anyway, I discovered this: Wookieepedia! Awesome. So now I know that the Modal Nodes are Bith from the planet Clak'dor VII. Thank you Wookieepedia! you've managed to prolong the illusion of paternal omnipotence for a few more days.)

Jonah can be counted on to scream 'Look! Daddy! Robot! Look! Two robots!' or 'Look! Daddy! Dark Vater!' When Vader is standing with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), Jonah screamed 'Look! Daddy! Dark Vater! Look! Daddy! Two Dark Vaters!' There was no way I could convince him otherwise.

Both Will and Jonah have an annoying habit of calling Darth Vader 'Dark Vater', which I actually figured out is not some cute childish mispronunciation but their damning assessment of my accent: in Toronto, all ts are pronounced as ds in the middle of words -- Beddy boughd some budder, etc., etc. --and so the little so-and-sos call him 'Dark Vater' because they are actually correcting what they assume to be my mispronunciation. Kids, eh?

A bit of a rationale: I was thinking the other day, being peppered with questions from Will about 'right' and 'wrong', 'good' and 'bad', how he isn't getting from me a Grand Narrative that explains all these things (No! let's blame culture and all it's post-modern, politically correct... no. On second thought, let's not). I knew, growing up, 'right' from 'wrong' in large part because of the way I was plugged into that whole God-thing. I knew that right was whatever someone told me would make Jesus happy, and anything else would condemn me to Eternal Damnation, etc.. So there were consequences. Now, obviously I don't want to burden my sons with that particular mythology (just look what it did to me!), so this seems like a good alternative. I'll let you know how it goes.

Putting him to bed that night, after talking a lot not just about lightsabers and Jedi Knights but also why nobody loves Darth Vader and it was wrong to blow up Alderaan, Will said, 'But it's just a story, right Daddy?' Lesson learned, job done, without forcing him to believe in any silly religious melodrama. (I much prefer this one...)

It's official: I am incapable of writing a short post.

Monday, 19 May 2008

I meant to draw more attention to this when I first read it in April. It's on 'the academic climate', an excellent post from the exquisitely titled and frequently brilliant I Cite blog. It's a testament to the quality of the post and the ideas that I -- whose memory is so... what' s the word? -- have remembered after all this time to come back to it.

The basic argument is that 'If academics were serious about climate change, we'd stop flying so much.' It's a debate that is long overdue. Here's a snippet:

What about ending small meetings, the small expert, invitation only conferences that solidify networks and often lead to edited volumes or special issues of journals? What about ending mega-conferences, the huge national and international conferences of over 5000 people? Are these really necessary? No one goes to every panel when 70 are scheduled at the same time. No one even attends all the panels in their speciality. No one even has face time with all the people they want to meet. Sure, it's fun to meet with friends, to see what scholar x looks like close up. But many complain about the big meetings anyway--they are impersonal, meat-markets, degrading, and, well, big.
And maybe it's no longer a question of if academics are serious about climate change, but maybe everyone else should be and start to put limits on these activities, for business as well as academia.

As I commented on the blog when I first read it, the illusion of a jet-set lifestyle is one of the few perks to a workforce otherwise battered and belittled at every turn. (Yup. 'Michael'. That one was me.) But that's no excuse, especially when there are plenty of alternatives nowadays, alternatives which not only include travel with less air-travel (I can highly recommend the train to everyone) but also plenty of e-options that are not only good enough but in some cases might actually be better. Am I the only one that feels that the whole 'conference thing' has been going on for so long that we've seemed to switch off and just go through the motions. Surely it's time to shake things up with some innovative methods?

I'm not saying 'no flying, no conferences', but surely there's a desperate need here for change?

Friday, 16 May 2008

Be careful what you wish for.

At last! A scribbling worthy of another chapter in the Great Book of Bathroom Graffiti!

I was in stall recently (Hicks building, for those in the neighbourhood, one of the floors hosting a math department or some such... you know, numbers and the like) when I discovered this desperate plea:

Why does this toilet have no interesting graffitti?

Come on, people. I need something to read while having a shit.

Fair enough. Which of us hasn't been there at some point? Except the only entertainment subsequently offered to this sad fellow reads like this:

Now, THIS is funny! Of course I have no way of knowing how funny, because I have no idea what it means. I used to be good at maths, of course, but that was before The Accident. So I don't know if this is funny because it is an ancient riddle, akin to that of the Sphinx, that somehow manages to simultaneously insult this person and provide a scathing critique on the state of humanity, or if it's funny because it's total nonsense and a dufusses (dufi?) like myself have no idea, or if it's funny because this is a mathematical representation of the Poo Riddle...

Any enlightenment from more enlightened souls enlightened about such post-Enlightenment things, would, as ever, be appreciated.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

No. It's not funny.

And it's not ironic, or clever. It's just shit. And regular readers -- both of you -- will know that I take shit very seriously. But this isn't the good kind of shit. This is some bad shit, and I don't mean 'bad shit' in that way young people have of making 'bad' good.

I mean the 1980s. So now you know which kind of shit I'm really talking about. And it seems that all vested interests have finally, finally, succeeded in reviving this horrible decade. I've been glancing at the fashion pages -- in the Guardian, obviously. I'm not an animal -- since 2001 and they've been saying 'Like it or not, girls, the puffball skirt is coming back in a big way this summer!' and finally, finally it seems that the word has listened to these Desperate Cassandras.

And so now we're stuck with 80s fashion, which was bad enough the first time around for those of us that are old enough to remember it (and let me reassure you, we don't look back upon it fondly. And if you do remember the 80s fondly, as they say of the 60s, then you weren't really there. Go back. And stay.)

But it's not just fashion. Oh were it only skinny jeans and big hair that terrorised us today! No. I don't even really care about what people are wearing, except that these things are indicative of larger cultural winds, and the air right now reeks of Conservative revivalism.

When did it become OK for normal looking young people to admit to voting Conservative?!? I mean, there were always some, you know, the ones that wore bow-ties to classes and had 'I WILL rule the world one day, oh yes!' etched all over their spotty faces, but not since sometime in the dark days of that horrible decade has it been 'OK' to be a Tory. Normally, Conservative students were despised and ostracised to the point where they were driven to take their revenge upon Society and the Pretty Girl that wouldn't go with them to the ball by becoming really really rich, or BBC political correspondents. And it worked, in a way. They ruled us, yes, but they were never happy.

(Then one of them took his ultimate revenge upon the world and became Leader of the Labour party.)

But now I see in the University of Sheffield newspaper students who otherwise seem to have been born to human parents admitting to voting Conservative in the last (local) election. And they haven't made any effort to protect his identity, so presumably he's not the only one who thinks it's 'OK'. [Quick clarification: 'It's time for a change' is not an acceptable reason to vote for anyone, let alone the right. If the best reason you can come up with for voting for some is that 'it's time for a change', stay home, turn on ITV and rot.]

So why has 80s fashion only come back in the last year or two, if fashion editors (the difficult 'middle child' of the newspaper world) have been trying to foist it on us since the cork popped on my Millennium bubbly? Because the politics and the economics are finally ready to support the weight of this cultural monstrosity. (Something about base and superstructure, if you like your socialism more scientific.)

And if you doubt that there is a correlation between these popular cultural movements and a changing socio-economic landscape, you can read about it right from the big, stupid, horse's ass itself, in a recent Daily Mail opinion piece. (I say 'opinion' - I mean bullshit.) Thanks again to the Daily Hate for pointing this out (because I will spend only as long on the Daily Mail website as I absolutely need to).

This is enough now. And it needs to stop.

But everyone thinks it's ok to have Boris Johnson as mayor of London, and Toffs running the world, because there's nothing wrong with greed and looking out for Number One and trickle-down economics doesn't sound like a bad idea and political correctness has gone mad and an equitable tax programme is dangerous social engineering and oh for god's sake I just can't go through all that again...

Where are the 1980s not happening all over again? I want to go there.

On a happier note, fortunately, at the very least, the music is better. And please, PLEASE, do not inundate me with posts about how great the 80s were musically. They weren't. I play this game: 'The 80s had shit music', I say. 'Oh not they didn't!' Sad-30-something objects. 'Ok,' I say. 'Name me one decent band.' And Sad-30-something riffs off the Cure and the Smiths before realising that this isn't going to be easy. Sometimes Sad-30-something can get 4, 5 even 6 bands before running out self-respect. But that's not the point. Even if you list 10, 11 decent bands, that's only 10 or 11 decent bands in a whole decade. How shit is that? Besides, surely most of those bands that were ok in the 80s would have been a lot better had they not been burdened with having had to be of the 80s. How much better would the Cure or the Smiths had been if they were of the 70s, or the 90s? (Close your eyes and hear any Johnny Marr riff produced by Butch Vig. See?)
Al Jourgensen: shit in the early 80s, and he got better and better the closer we got to the 90s, when, ta-da! And thank goodness for that.

Alright, that's the moment when my vitriol goes just that bit too far, and I've said something I'm going to regret. I know. I'll put the keyboard back under the desk now, and step away.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

On your heads be it.

Well, what can I say? I'm glad that I don't live in London?

As Prozacville puts it, who the fuck voted for this guy?

Nevermind. I suppose some thought it would be a good laugh, and some thought that he will do a good job for London. Well, you're both wrong. Idiots.

I'm in the mood for some medieval torture again, rather sooner than I thought I would be. But who do we punish for this crime? Boris Johnston? oh surely not. He'll have a chance, somewhere down the line, no doubt, to sit in a shiny, new, modern courtroom. And besides, we can't blame him if that many Londoners are so easily duped. Or stupid. And self-absorbed. That's hardly his fault. That's capitalism.

So, who do we blame? the Evening Standard? or all the Associated Newspapers titles for that matter? Don't be silly. You can't torture newsprint. It's unethical. How about the editor, Veronica Wadley, or her malformed attack dog, Andrew Gilligan? No, not them either. Frankly, fantasising about publicly humiliating these two on a light-hearted blog is too good for either of them. (Besides, I'm sure that Gilligan, at least, can claim some affinity with one protected species or another.)

No, this schandmantel I'm planning to fit around the people of London. All of them. And slap a big, stinky, blonde-haired turnip on each head, and let the capital reek and stink for four years until no one can bear it any more.

Honestly. I mean, really?

Friday, 2 May 2008

To caffeine or not to caffeine...

I'm a poseur. Thought I'd come clean. I spend day after day in cafés -- right now most often at Coffee Revolution, thanks to all -- drinking double lattés and marking and writing lectures or preparing seminars. But it's all a sham. Because what I'm really drinking aren't double lattés at all but double decaf lattés.

There. I said it, publicly. Now you know. The dirty secret, thus far known only to me and a few staff at Coffee Rev, is out.

But is it really so wrong?

I'm ashamed to order them. I stand proudly at the counter, throw a loyalty card down and declare, 'I'd like double latté, please!' and then mumble, under my breath, as close to the ear of the person taking my order as they'll let me get, 'Actually, can you make it a decaf?' the last word pushed out through a half-closed mouth, lest someone at a nearby table read my lips. Then I feel as though I need to make excuses. 'I'm... er... not feeling well, you know. Had three cups of tea and four double espressos already, so, you know, I need to bring it down a bit...'

Bullshit. I'm fine, I just can't handle the amount of caffeine I used to. It makes me jumpy. Anxious. More than two caffeinated drinks a day and I start to get the shakes. Makes me feel like I'm falling out of my chair, leaving my skin busy ferreting away on the laptop at the table without me. So fuck it. I'm cutting down -- not cutting out, only cutting down -- on the caffeine.

But the shame. Oh the shame! I'm almost afraid to go my favourite café (plug: Remo's in Broomhill), where well-hardened coffee drinkers know no other way. Going in there and asking for decaf coffee would be like going into Picasso's studio and ask him to knock-up a pretty picture of dolphins to hang in the bathroom, or asking Bartók to write a little ditty for a toothpaste ad. (Though the real reasons I don't get there as much as I used to are that a) I don't walk by it everyday on the way to and from work and b) it's not quite the same, just, finding respite from the world in the perfect little café and the perfectly constructed little cup of joy, when your two-year old and four year-old are climbing up the walls, making a zoos on each table with sugar packet animals and building trains out of every chair in the place, even the ones that caffeine-wired young intellectuals are sitting in. (Sorry for the mess, Remo.)

So what's all this about? leaving aside my issues with getting older/looking like a wannabe/losing my cred amongst the proper café denizens? Nevermind that. Is this OK? in at least some scale upon which we judge such things? I'm still drinking Fairtrade, obviously. It's still frothy and steamed milk poured on water that has passed through ground coffee beans. It's just that the beans... you know. Have been neutered.

It's not like I've got alternatives. If I'm working, what I'm drinking needs to be hot, obviously. But a drink of 'Big Red Berry' tea just doesn't cut it. It's not just the taste. To drink tea so overtly would simply announce, rather more loudly than I need to, my caffeine-castration, which would be taking public self-deprecation to unnecessary extremes. And it's not just myself I'm thinking of here: I really feel uncomfortable around people who too proudly drink bad herbal tea in public. It's like sitting on the bus beside someone who's tattooing themselves with a pen knife. Where do you look?

So, again, is it ok? Or should there be a separate section of the café for people like me, one with soft cushions, ABBA playing on a continual loop and 'SHAME' spelling out in neon above our heads?