Sunday, 28 September 2008

Poem of the Week #2

Annoyingly, and I don't know why this is, this misses off the final verse, which reads:

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

But despite that, Damian Lewis for the win.

Pies will be eaten at amazing rates.

I'm probably insane, but I've entered NaNoWriMo.

It's what happens when you invite good friends over the weekend and let them talk you into silly things. I don't think I'll make 50,000 words, but it might actually get me somewhere with this hardcore SF/young adult fantasy novel I've been meaning to write for ages. I've got some plot outline scrawled down, but it's pretty bad. However, I don't know whether to write it as SF or YAF and have been using this as an excuse to procrastinate like a mofo.

But, I think if I at least get something written, it'll give me something to edit afterwards... and who knows? I might actually produce a complete story. I'd like to think I could.

Linkables 28/9/8

A ton of links came up quite quickly since the last links post I did, so I thought I'd slip in another to avoid the next one being too long.

First a couple from 6 brainwashing techniques to watch out for (particularly in election season), and an introduction to the monkeysphere.

Google's Project 10 to the 100 looks interesting - they're looking for large scale ideas to help people, with those helping the most people having the best chance of being shortlisted. It looks like there's a limit of $10m amongst up to 5 projects and 1 or 2 years implementation, though, which probably rules out massive operations like Seawater Greenhouses. However, if the scheme works, it could be the kind of thing that could run again and again with a larger scope and budget.

If you're a West Wing fan, you have to read this conversation between Obama and Bartlet as written by Aaron Sorkin. If you can do Bartlet's voice in your head, it's even better. And, staying with politics, someone has written a Markov text generator to mimic Sarah Palin's convoluted interview answers (found via Metafilter Projects).

And finally a couple of great blog posts, via POTW: A great list of memories from steakhouse blues, and a sweet story from hobocamp.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Benevolently sexist.

So, I've been meaning to write a post on feminism for ages, but it's just too big a topic. I've had a few conversations about it with various people over the years, and I still don't know exactly where I stand. Internet-based discussions of the issues run the full gamut from "lively" to "warlike", and the situations being discussed are important enough to those involved to cause massive emotional outbursts if approached in the wrong way. Hence, rather than trying to do one big post trying to explain all of the various thoughts I have on the subject, I'll try and do occasional posts approaching smaller related topics. This, I hasten to add, is the first of those.

I read a blog post at work today (during my lunch hour, I assure you...) describing a woman's reaction to being asked whether she needed help carrying a saxophone case outside her apartment. On the one hand, the author makes a good point - if the guy who asked her if she needed help would not have asked a man in the same situation, then he was probably exhibiting sexist behaviour. On the other hand, I also disagree with a couple of the points she makes.

Firstly, she assumes the guy wouldn't have offered help to a man in her situation. It's splitting hairs, maybe, since I agree with her that the prevailing social attitude would support offering a woman help but not a man in the situation, but ultimately she doesn't know what the guy would have done if it were a man carrying the sax. The only reason I mention this is that the comments discuss more active responses the author could have attempted, all focusing on chastising the man to a greater or lesser extent for being so patronising. It seems to me, that unless you know that he would have done something different if it were a man standing there, to essentially accuse him of double standards is unfair. Again, I agree that in general, were they to make this accusation they would probably be correct to one degree or another, but they couldn't know it, and were judging the man's actions based on percieved motivations based on his gender. And I'm not entirely sure I agree with that.

The author then moves on to talk about the differences between this situation, and one in which she offers to help a woman struggling to get bottles off a high shelf in a supermarket. She says that the distinction between the two scenarios is that while the man offered her help when she was perfectly comfortable, she offered help to someone who was "obviously struggling". She then advises "I want to be clear that I’m not saying that people shouldn’t help each other out. I’m saying, don’t assume people need help when they’re not really looking like they need it."

The problem with this is that she's leaving the judgement to the observer. If I'm not sure whether someone needs help or not, should I help them? According to her, unless they are "obviously" in need of assistance, I shouldn't ask if they need a hand. The inaccuracy present in the subjective interpretation of "obviously" combined with the intrinsic inaccuracy in trying to determine need from an external observation of a stranger, leaves us in a situation where we are encouraged not to offer help, for fear of causing offence. We are encouraged to wait until we are asked to help, ignoring the potential for people who need help to be nervous about asking a total stranger for assistance.

Personally, I will try to continue to offer help if I think it might be appreciated, and apologise if it is taken as patronising. To do anything else, would seem to me to be assuming too much sociological and analytical ability on my part.

In any case, having read this article, I was very careful for the rest of the day to ensure that I didn't offer any help to a woman that I wouldn't offer to a man in the same situation. Evening came, and I was walking through Victoria with a friend. As we were waiting for the lights to change at a crossing, we noticed a woman maybe 20 feet away to our left being shouted at fairly aggressively by a man standing right next to her. She didn't seem to be responding, and seemed to be mostly ignoring him, and with the distance and traffic noise, we couldn't tell what he was saying. As the lights changed, and we started to cross the road, he walked off, still shouting, and she disappeared, separately, into the crowds of pedestrians.

So, what should we have done? Was she "obviously struggling" with the situation? Should we have tried to intervene? Or would to intervene have patronisingly assumed that she couldn't handle an argument with an aggressive looking man much larger than her?

As it was, it was over too quickly for us to really make anything other than a gut decision (to stay out of it), and as we walked on, we discussed it and realised that both of us had internally decided to go over only if he became physically abusive. Were we right in that decision, or is verbal abuse enough to warrant intervention? I can imagine people expressing displeasure at strangers intervening if it was a personal dispute, and with someone looking as agitated and angry as the man did, we were both unconsciously worried that such displeasure might be expressed in a physical manner. In other words, we didn't want to make the situation worse.

It also reminded me of a time a year or so ago, when I was sitting on a tube opposite a couple having a fairly heated and very one-sided argument in a foreign language. The woman would occasionally try to speak, but the man would cut in quite aggressively, interrupting her, and going into a long tirade, accompanied by fairly violent hand movements. I didn't think it would be appropriate at all to intervene in an argument I had no way of following or understanding, but there were a couple of moments when I thought the man was going to hit the woman. I was wrong as it turned out, but it certainly felt in my mind as though the threat was there. Different situation, same question - would intervening have been acceptable? How about if he had hit her? Should one assume that in both situations the woman is perfectly capable of dealing with the situation? At what point does it become "obvious" that she is not?

How would I have reacted if it was a man verbally abusing another man on the street? Who knows - I don't believe you can predict your reactions to a hypothetical situation particularly accurately. In any case, I feel like often real life situations cannot be boiled down to easy rhetoric, and sometimes arguments and discussions online can rely too much on the abstract and the simplistic.

Apologies if some of that is garbled or rushed. I'm pretty tired, and didn't want to spend too much time this evening writing and rewriting it. In any case, I'm sure no one's ever regretted not choosing their words carefully when disagreeing with a feminist online.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Review Round-Up 4

Patch Adams (director: Tom Shadyac; stars: Robin Williams, Daniel London, Monica Potter, Philip Seymour Hoffman) - nothing outstanding, but not as irritating as I had been led to believe by some. Williams' performance is commendable, occasionally verging on annoying and unfortunately slipping into over-sentimentality on several occasions, but his genuine talent still manages to come through. Hoffman is predictably great in one of many roles worth revisiting since he became a big name. A harmless film that is very easy to enjoy if you don't sit and pick it apart. If you can get past the over-sentimentality and occasional saccharine moments, you could do a lot worse.

Erin Brockovich (director: Steven Soderbergh; stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart) - enjoyable and well made, although towards the end I felt that it had been hammering home the same message for a little too long without much else to say. Roberts handles the starring role well - I only got a little aggravated by her performance towards the end. Eckhart deserves praise for a versatile performance in a role I did not expect to see him in, particularly after seeing him in The Dark Knight recently. Worth a watch, but not one I will be rushing to see again.

Hitch (director: Kevin Bisch; stars: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James) - surprisingly enjoyable, if somewhat vacuous. As a piece of entertainment that doesn't need to have meaning found in it, this is a very fun film. Smith is reliably great, exuding charisma and awkwardness well as the main character. Mendes and James support well. I was pleasantly surprised by James, who puts in a genuinely funny performance with a satisfying mix of understatement, awkwardness and slapstick, and it is his chemistry with Smith which raises this film to being above average. Definitely worth a watch.

Flight Of The Navigator (director: Randal Kleiser; stars: Joey Cramer, Paul Reubens) - a blast from the past revisited for the first time in many years. Still an interesting concept with regards to plot. The acting is average at best throughout, and the film hasn't aged well (the soundtrack is so '80s that it hurts), but this is still an enjoyable family sci-fi film.

I Am Legend (director: Francis Lawrence; stars: Will Smith, Alice Braga) - not as good the second time. The first three quarters of the film create a tangible sense of tension, and Smith's performance is fantastic. The creatures are genuinely creepy if not entirely authentic in feel. Whatever good is created in this first segment is counteracted by the film's final quarter. Braga is flat and irritating, and her character's son a completely pointless addition. The less scientific spin she places on the events of the film does not sit well with me. Any credible action sequences are swapped for Hollywood vacuousness. A distinctly poor ending to what is for the most part an enjoyable and tense sci-fi horror film. I doubt I'll go out of my way to watch this one again.

Night At The Museum
(director: Shawn Levy; stars: Ben Stiller, Dick Van Dyke, Robin Williams) - charming from start to finish. Nothing too challenging or thought-provoking, and the moralistic undertone is fairly trite but also easily ignored. Think Jumanji in a museum. Stiller is great, and the host of veteran actors led by Van Dyke add credibility and heart to the whole exercise. Sit back and allow yourself some lighthearted entertainment and this is a very enjoyable film.

(director: Guillermo del Toro; stars: Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, John Hurt, Selma Blair) - somewhat underdeveloped in parts, such as the relationships between some of the heroes (particularly Hellboy and Liz), but overall a very enjoyable comic book film with the knowing touch of del Toro shining through regularly. Perlman brings a great personality to the eponymous hero. Pleasingly dark in places, but probably could have got away with being a little darker overall. Generally a strong and thoroughly entertaining action film.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (director: Guillermo del Toro; stars: Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, Selma Blair) - pleasing sequel to the first film. It's clear from the start that this film is post-Pan's Labyrinth, as del Toro's touch is much more apparent, and he has clearly been given licence to take control of the franchise as he sees fit. The film is all the better for this. All the performances of the returning case are just as strong as in the first film. Generally feels more meandering and unfocused than its predecessor, and at around two hours it could do with being a little shorter as it does lose pace here and there. However, this is a great fantasy-action-comic-book follow-up to the first Hellboy film, and look forward to seeing any more installments del Toro might have in store.

Tropic Thunder (director: Ben Stiller; stars: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black) - Very close to an excellent film, but doesn't quite reach it, remaining very very good. The cast is solid, with Stiller doing well, if not extending himself a great deal, and Black is pleasingly understated whilst genuinely funny. Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise steal every scene they are in respectively however, with both showing their versatility and natural talent throughout. Downey Jr. shows his great sense of humour and remarkable ability; Cruise's character is fantastic, becoming more and more warped as the story progresses. The film mainly suffers from a lack of focus in the first segment - after a great opening, the audience is given very little introduction to the characters and their situation, instead left to work this out for themselves after being dropped into the action "in media res". Once the film gets going however, it is a well written and executed comedy film which entertained me immensely, and delivered several laugh-out-loud moments. I can imagine this seeming better on a second or third viewing. Definitely a future cult classic.

Funny Games U.S. (director: Michael Haneke; stars: Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Tim Roth, Naomi Watts) - some fine film-making and acting is evident in this film, but essentially it felt all the way through as if it was going to deliver an important or thought-provoking message and did not come up with the goods in that department. Pitt and Corbet are genuinely creepy and do very well in making the viewer feel uncomfortable when they are on screen throughout the film, and Roth and Watts support predictably well. Enjoyable, even emotive in parts, but ultimately fairly shallow.

P.S. I am still intending to move most of the reviews from the now defunct Drink Your Milkshake on here, so look out for those, most likely in an edited form, on here soon.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Linkables 23/9/8

Just a few links again this time - had a pretty hectic week or so, and haven't had a chance to sift through a lot of my RSS feeds.

Firstly, Bête de Jour's "shame week" posts are a must-read. The posts themselves are, of course, excellently written, but the comments are also magnificent, as his readers tell their own stories. This being a blog I would like at some point to perhaps tell my parents about, I won't be revealing my most embarrassing moments on here, but hopefully those of strangers will be enough for you.

Secondly, and via the comments of one of the shame week posts, Overdressed and Underpaid, another excellently written personal blog willing to expose the most intimate of the author's personal moments. There's not a massive number of posts, but try Shame! and Why I don't exercise.

Thirdly, I link to Post of the Week fairly regularly, and have finally decided to get involved with it a little more closely (since I like the idea of it so much), and have joined the team there. And with great circumstance, my nomination of the aforementioned "Shame!" post won (the first time I've nominated a winning post). My being on the team means none of my posts here can be nominated, which also gives me a nice excuse when none of them are. :P

Finally, a web comic I can't believe has eluded me for this long, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I sat down and read deep into the archives over the weekend, when it was recommended to me by two independent sources simultaneously. It's very much hit and very rarely miss, with a good dark streak to go along with the jokes. Read it. Now!

Monday, 22 September 2008

Shameless plug.

Webcomics are marvellous. They embody a huge amount of what makes the internet great - the creativity unfettered by economics, the freedom of speech and expression, and, occasionally, the dramatic success story: the xkcd or the Penny Arcade, that allows its progenitor to live off the proceeds.

Without any such high minded ambitions, then, myself and a friend (also an occasional contributor to these pages), have spent the last five months or so putting together our own offering. Taking opposite sides of the gender conflict (there's an idea that's never been done before), we present the comics in the form of a pamphlet of advice about dealing with the opposite sex.

We've garnered as much feedback as we dare from trusted friends, but, as with all projects, there comes a time when they must be released into the wild, and for us that time is now. Hence, we present to you "How To Talk To Girls" and "How To Talk To Boys" - each entry guaranteed to be either based on a real experience or totally fabricated for entertainment value. Sometimes both.

As usual, any feedback would be hugely appreciated - we hope to get out a new comic every week or so (inspiration dependent), so hopefully we'll be able to take comments and advice in our stride and improve what we already have. Oh, and some of the comics are both disgusting and offensive. It's not our fault. We are simply vessels through which whatever passes for a muse these days flows.

Old Skool

Tiffin School in the national press regarding its new homework policy. The story in The Telegraph, The Times, on the BBC, and finally in The Londonist blog - apparently written by an old Tiffinian.

I've not been home long so I need a bit of time not thinking about homework, school and education, but definitely watch this space to see my opinion.

Oh, and for those not already aware, three of the contibutors to this blog used to attend Tiffin School. I'd be interested to hear their views, along with those of anyone else of course.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


So, i don't really understand deodorant. Not in terms of its place in society - I can just about appreciate that sometimes there is value to smelling like ... well... whatever lynx smells like, chemicals, I guess, rather than the combination of smells produced by dried sweat, ingrained dirt and miscellaneous bodily fungus. However, every time I go into a supermarket to replenish my stock of chemicals to make me more nasally acceptable, I am confronted by some thoroughly confusing naming decisions.

I generally buy "sure for men". Firstly, of course, because it reinforces my masculinity to use a deodorant with my gender in the name and secondly because the adverts focussed less on the "attracting women" element and more on the "staying above the socially acceptable hygiene line". I've always felt using a deodorant as a tactic to attract female interest was a bit sketchy - like pretending to have a better job than you do, or lying about your criminal record.

In any case, I'm presented with various options by the marketeers at "sure for men", in the form of subtitles - do I want the basic "sure for men: original", or the reassuringly titled "sure for men: extra sensitive". If I'm in an active mood, do I want "sport" or "extra strength" instead? Do I even need them? Is "original" sure for men just not going to hold up under the pressure of "sport"?

And then you have the really abstract ones - "cobalt", and the one that inspired this post, "quantum". Seriously? Quantum? Does it mess with the subatomic make-up of my underarm in order to decrease my odorousness? Does it cause my sweat to change from a particle to a wave? Does it allow my body to exist in a superpositional state of both smelling bad and smelling good (at least until the presence of someone nasally perceptive enough causes the waveform to collapse)?

In any case, there is no explanation of these terms on the bottle, leaving, I guess, the possibility that they are just all the same (isn't there some marketing theory about the perception of variety improving sales, even without actual variety?). I didn't buy the quantum one, though, just in case it turned out to be the LHC in a pressurised can, and converted my armpits into miniature black holes - good for preventing odour, less good for picking up girls...

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


I've been thinking about my attitude towards things of late and have been trying to become much less judgemental and more aware of peoples different opinions. There are obviously some things that I still just wont tolerate, racism, human exploitation and acting twatty, to name a few. This does however require me to ignore some of my base reactions to things, stuff which I've been indoctrinated with from an early age which requires me to be a little more aware of my though process. Anyway this is all very vague really but it leads me to the following.

I was looking out of my window and noticed that there where quite a large proportion of black people on the bus outside, which lead me to think about apartheid in America and Rosa Parks. Anyway with that in mind I wondered if I would be an advocate of equal rights back then or would I have been one of those people who goes with the masses? I can't really answer this. I'd like to say yeah I'd totally be for equal rights, but I'm not sure if I'd have just gone with the general populous or not. I do wonder how much of my beliefs and morals are purely to do with my upbringing and how many are a conscious decision I've made at some point in my life.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Not-even-a-paragraph reviews 2

These reviews are for films that I saw earlier this year, but never got round to reviewing at the time. In general, I can't recall them clearly enough to do a long review, so I've just picked out the main points as I remember them:

The Darjeeling Ltd.
Great characters, and some brilliant combinations of scenery and set design. All that's really missing is a more coherent story. There are a number of excellent scenes, and a short film that works very nicely as a prequel, but by the end of the story it doesn't quite hang together.

Seems unsure as to whether it wants to be a deeper look at the superhero psyche, or a CGI-heavy blockbuster. Would almost have worked better without the special effects, which always felt a bit unnecessary, and could certainly do with a re-working of the antagonists, whose role in the film is laughably superficial. Looked like it might redeem itself with a dark ending, that has flashes of Unbreakable about it, but ultimately left me disappointed.

Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Olivia Williams are great, but I felt the whole thing was a little too clean cut. I also found the character of the protagonist thoroughly annoying and unlikeable, which didn't help. It's not unenjoyable, but I wouldn't hold it up as a Wes Anderson classic.

The only thing that detracted from my enjoyment of this film (yep, it took me this long to finally get round to seeing it) was that I'd seen so many pop-culture references to it, that it felt really quite disconcertingly familiar throughout. Absolutely rock solid piece of film-making, though, with a great script, and fantastic performances. If I had to pick some out, I'd say Frances McDormand and William H. Macy, but everyone pulls their weight and more.

Dead Man's Shoes
There is a massively threatening atmosphere present throughout this thriller - the tension is wound up mercilessly all the way through, and never lets up. Feels a little more rough-and-ready than the subsequent 'This is England', but shares that film's strong central performances. Paddy Considine and Tony Kebbell are brilliant as the brothers at the centre of the story, and there is a massive amount of their relationship that goes unsaid, only available through interpretation of their few words to one another. Well worth a look.

Planet of the Apes (2001)
Marvellous make up, and great physical performances can't save this film from a sluggish script and predictable plot. There's rather too much action, given that there's no real violence or visceral threat going on, and not enough investigation of the reversed human-ape society. The apes feel very convincing, particularly Roth and Giamatti, and a lot of work has gone into their presentation, so it's a pity that the humans in the film seem to have been largely ignored. Estella Warren, in particular, has absolutely nothing to do except look pretty. Interesting ending, but by that point it's too late.

The X-Files: I want to believe
Really disappointing. Feels like an extended television episode, rather than a cinematic experience (which was where the first one succeeded), and is packed full of so many references to the series that they start to feel like clichés. The script really doesn't get any tension going at all, and the only interesting character is Billy Connolly's disgraced priest. It feels too low key - like a Sunday night crime drama, and manages to make every conversation and chase feel clunky and awkward.

Somers Town
Far less dark and punchy than other Shane Meadows films I've seen, Somers Town is a coming-of-age buddy comedy that manages to remain respectable through some excellent and believable characters. Turgoose and Jagiello are great as the two young protagonists, and Czop does well as Marek's father, providing a more serious perspective. In general, though, the tone is light, and there are certainly more than a few laughs. There are a couple of clunky scenes as well, and bits of diologue here and there don't work, but it shouldn't overshadow a solid comedic effort.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Linkables 15/9/8

Some more LHC-related links for y'all...

LHC webcams, a page to allow you to check whether the LHC has destroyed the world or not yet, and ... wait... uh oh... we'd better prepare for unforeseen consequences...

Later in tonight's program: Ninja Cat is watching you! Celebrity culture run amok! Incredibly addictive in-browser flash RTS gaming experience!

Finally quite a moving blog post about being a single parent, which would have won POTW if there was any justice in the world.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Double blow.

This is an update to my post of a week or so ago about the situation at Newcastle. It is necessarily football-related, so if such things are anathema to you, then feel free to ignore it.

This evening Mike Ashley has released a statement about his intentions to sell the club. The full text is here, and it is well worth reading for a look at the emotional and logistical problems running a modern football club. It makes me feel hugely sad to see someone who has managed to get hold of something they love and respect feeling backed into a corner to the point where they need to give it up. I love Ashley's attitude to being an owner who's not afraid to mingle with the fans, and up until the end of the summer, I think he had the backing of the vast majority of them.

Possibly the only thing Ashley did wrong was underestimate the double-edged sword that is Keegan. Getting him back was a master-stroke, and meant that as long as Keegan was happy, the fans were happy. Unfortunately the flip side of this was that if Keegan became unhappy, so did the fans, and this unhappiness boiling over into protests was the least that could be expected if such a popular person is percieved as having been forced out.

The only mention he makes to the transfer issues at the centre of the recent problems is to say that he prefers to buy young talent rather than big names, and that this conflicts with what the fans want. He says: "The fans want this process to happen more quickly and they want huge amounts spent in the transfer market so that the club can compete at the top table of European football now".

I agree with, that this is a misreading of the situation. The fans want success, and they want the team to play good football. They will be willing to wait 3 or 4 years or longer for the success as long as the team is playing good, passionate football. We would much rather be an Arsenal than a Chelsea, but to talk about nurturing young talent on one hand and then selling James Milner, one of our major proven young talents, on the other is to send confusing messages.

Ashley's plan for the club is brilliant on paper - it is exactly what we need as a club. Had the statement come out as a plan of action at the beginning of the season, every supporter would be behind it. Even Keegan must have been behind it in theory. The only differences come in practice, when the wage bill needs to be cut, and the manager insists he needs to keep players. When we need replacement squad members, but the manager doesn't like the ones the scouts have found. When the scouts go over the manager's head and the board buys the players anyway. These are the areas of disagreement. These are the areas the fans and manager are unhappy.

Ashley then says: "I have the interests of Newcastle United at heart. I have listened to you. You want me out."

I don't think this is necessarily what the bulk of the fans do want. I think the fans are reacting to the loss of Keegan badly, and lashing out. If Ashley really wants what's best for the club, I think he needs to stay and prove to the fans that he has their best interests at heart.

After reading through his statement and looking at the work he has done, I think most fans would want him to continue to run the club. I think they want someone in charge who is passionate, and I doubt we'll find anyone better than Ashley on that score. We also want a manager who is passionate, and we'll never find someone better than Keegan on that one. Ashley and Keegan are the perfect people to run the club together, and to lose them both in under a month due to what seems like a personality clash, or a disagreement of style, is heartbreaking.

Disposable Income.

A while back I found a couple of sites offering "micro-loans" online - the kind of thing where you can set an interest rate and an amount and people who want loans can small amounts of money from lots of people to make up their loan amount, without having to go to a bank. Though the idea intrigued me, the potential gain of slightly higher interest on the money invested didn't seem particularly worth the risk of someone deciding to walk away with my cash.

So then, about five months ago, I came across a link to Kiva. Kiva is a micro-lending site as described above, but with the difference that it is intended to provide funding for third-world entrepreneurs rather than just anyone. Lenders are able to choose who to lend to and how much to lend, and the loans are paid back at intervals over several months. There is no interest on the loans, since the scheme is designed to help the entrepreneurs, not make money for the lenders.

I thought this sounded like a great idea, and signed up straight away, picking out a couple of women in Ghana looking for money to run their general stores, and lending them the minimum amount ($25) towards their respective totals. Throughout the loan period, I received monthly repayments along with occasional updates informing me what was happening with the money. Now, five months later, the first of my loans has finished, and my $25 has been returned in full. My initial plan was to wait until the first loans were returned before putting any more money in (to assess how reliably the repayments were made), but after a couple of months with no problems, I cracked and picked out some more entrepreneurs to back. According to Kiva's statistics, more than 98.5% of loans are paid back in full, and I've had no problems at all with my loanees so far.

The main difference between this and a regular charity, of course, is that you get your money back. This is no substitute for more conventional donation structures to impoverished regions, of course, since there are millions of people who cannot afford to repay the money they need to survive, but the supporting of local entrepreneurs and businesses in these areas is essential for any kind of future in which they can sustain themselves economically.

In addition, the fact that the money is almost guaranteed to come back encourages lenders to be more generous than with other charitable causes. I've certainly given more money to people via Kiva than I would have given to a conventional charity cause - not because I'm giving money to Kiva that I couldn't give to charity (I could certainly give a lot more to charity than I currently do) but because I'm weak and easily concerned by the prospect of giving away money that I might need in the future. With Kiva, though, it's like putting your money in a bank that promises to invest it in developing nations, with the added bonus that you can control exactly to whom your money goes.

Whether you think that Kiva is a worthwhile operation or not (I suspect there are people who would argue that money is going towards supporting failing businesses when it should be going towards feeding the people who can't afford to be entrepreneurs), I think that it is undeniable that it has generated a massive response, and diverted funds that would otherwise be sitting in middle class bank accounts and ISAs into the development of third world economies.

In the three years since it was founded, Kiva has distributed $42m in loans from more than 300,000 lenders to almost 60,000 entrepreneurs. If the idea that economic stability can be generated in this fashion, and that such stability is important in these regions, is one that appeals, then I'd certainly recommend checking out Kiva. Even if it does no good at all, the idea that so many people are willing to try to make a difference in this way has to be a little encouraging.

My Kiva Profile.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Linkables 9/9/8

Not to distract people from the deliciously geeky arguments on the comment thread for the previous post, so just a few links today:

Not sure I agree with number three, but here's's "Hollywood's 5 Saddest Attempts at Feminism".

And, on that topic, if you want to avoid unnerving women, it's better to be a chauvinist than ambiguous. So, if you're not sure where you stand, just start treating women like second class citizens - it'll let them know where they stand, and will make them feel much more at ease.

This is a set of awesome physics videos, which is worth it for the number one alone, the LHC rap:

And Jon Stewart at his best, talking about right-wing-media u-turns after the naming of Sarah Palin as the Republican VP candidate:

And finally, this 80% complete cartoon/music video "there she is" is brilliant.

Enjoy. :D

Monday, 8 September 2008

Something intelligent

As much as I hate to do this and add to the many lame people in the interworld discussing this particular "puzzle" I'm going to anyway, I have no shame!

Prompted by the latestxkcd comic, or more precisely the roll over joke, which if you don't know about, go back and read all the comics again but hover your mouse over the image after reading it for further goodness, I decided to look up the airplane(aeroplane)/treadmill problem thingy, which boils down to this:

A plane is standing on a runway that can move (some sort of band conveyor). The plane moves in one direction, while the conveyor moves in the opposite direction. This conveyor has a control system that tracks the plane speed and tunes the speed of the conveyor to be exactly the same (but in the opposite direction). Can the plane take off?

There are a number of blog/forum posts referencing this problem and giving there various answers, which seem to be predominantly yes.

this site has some interesting stuff about it and so does a google search for airplane treadmill problem.

Anyway I want to see what you guys thing, seeing you're all intelligent. I have my own theory, which is probably wrong, but for the time being I think it's right, but not being a physicist/whatever I could be missing something fundamental.

The majority of answers go thusly, plane fires jets, treadmill moves, wheels go round, but plane takes off because of the air flow caused by the jets.

I disagree, I think that the jets are the propulsion which moves the plane through the air or across the ground, depending on where it is. What I understand produces lift is the air flow above and below the wings, which creates negative pressure above the wing lifting it up (this could be faulty physics though). This is caused by the plane moving through the air at a high speed, either because it's already there and jetting through the air or because it's gathered sufficient speed from moving along the ground. So if the ground is moving at the same rate as the jets are trying to push the plane forwards it will not gain any airspeed so not take off, as the air above and below the wings will not be moving (well it probably will be, but not enough). The jets are simply sucking in air and pushing it back out creating propulsion but not an airflow over the wings. I guess it's kinda like if the air started to move at the same speed as a plane in the air but in the opposite direction, it wouldn't have any lift so would fall out of the sky.

Anyway that's my thinkings, what be yours??

Saturday, 6 September 2008

17 things what I discovered yesterday

Software breaking at 5pm on a Friday is a funny myth, but sometimes it actually happens.

Unpaid overtime makes one feel noble, but also tired.

I should have checked the weather forecast before deciding to give myself one more week with my old shoes.

Walking around with holes in your shoes in torrential rain is a good way to give yourself squelchy socks.

Squelchy socks are a good way to give yourself trench foot.

When walking past someone throwing up in the street during a downpour, the best place to stand is not downstream.

I've never been through Aldgate before, but I saw more people throwing up, pissing and rooting through bins last night than I have on any previous fifteen minute walk.

I've never been to Brick Lane before, but it turns out it has a lot of curry houses.

Walking down Brick Lane when you don't want a curry is like walking through Camden when you don't want to buy drugs.

People will also try to sell you drugs in Brick Lane.

There are curry houses on Brick Lane that at some point believed putting in a television screen showing Bollywood music videos would be an effective hook.

There exists such a thing as duck curry, with orange sauce no less.

Sometimes people on the street want money, but sometimes they just want high fives.

The drinking ban on the tube is entirely unenforceable.

Drinking wine out of the back of a bottle does not cure hiccups.

Almost anything is funny on a tube train at quarter to one in the morning.

Especially the idea of filling the Thames with pudding.


I totally did not make these up. They are for serious.

Linkables 6/9/8

Ever wondered why you're so miserable? Cracked knows why.

Irritating people. Now on ebay too.

I'm no grammar expert (just ask pretty much anyone who reads this blog regularly), but did you know all of these rules? Man, language is hard.

A couple of pieces about the new republican VP candidate, Sarah Palin, one comparing qualifications, and one giving an analysis of her previous experience in power (corroborated by Snopes).

A sad little comic about books.

A cool little set of editorial comics about news stories, found when this one was pointed out to me by Russ.

A strange and bizarre web comic. Bread is indeed delicious.

Poem of the Week #1

War poet

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me;
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.

by Sydney Keyes.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Out of it.

So, a strange thing happened to me last weekend.

I had just emerged from the shower, on Sunday morning, when I felt a bit light headed. I was both excited and nervous about the organisation and execution of my birthday party later that day, so I put it down to adrenaline; and, in fact, maybe adrenaline had something to do with it. In any case, I took a deep breath (of what, in retrospect, and in a poorly ventilated bathroom, was probably mostly steam) and started to shave.

As I dragged my, perhaps fortuitously blunt, razor down my throat, I started to feel further lightheadedness, which quickly became outright nausea. I felt that strange feeling you get in the backs of your teeth and gums that comes when you're about to be sick, and I made the sensible decision to put the razor down. I haven't thrown up for a good thirteen or fourteen years, a record I'm quite proud of, and I tried to resist the churning feeling in my stomach, and the increasingly dizzy feeling in my head, sitting down on the bathroom chair to try and steady myself.

After a few moments seated, the feeling of nausea began to pass, but was replaced by a far more concerning loss of vision - grey splotches, edged with black began to creep into my view, and I closed my eyes to try to get rid of them. When I opened them, they were still there, and I felt my brain start to slip into that state you find yourself in in dreams, where events are clearly happening to you, but you take the role of the narrator - directing and describing the action in the third person. In the dream it feels perfectly natural, of course, and so it did at this point, as I pondered my options very calmly but also very slowly.

I decided, apparently after several seconds of thought, that what a person in this situation should really do is find some fresh air, so I got up from the chair and opened the bathroom door. By this point, I was almost entirely in third person mode, and can remember feeling very disconnected from the environment, and, both mentally and physically, very numb. I can remember getting two or three steps onto the landing, heading for the room at the end of the hall, with a window, and fresh air; all the time my vision worsening, until I couldn't see anything but greyness. I guess somewhere between here and the wall of the room with the window, I blacked out.

My next memory is waking up crumpled against the wall of the room I was trying to get to, with my dad shaking my shoulder and checking I was ok. I couldn't initially explain what had happened, because the memory felt so much like a dream - like I'd watched, or imagined, or made up the previous ninety seconds. I also felt no physical discomfort - the dizziness and nausea were gone, and my vision cleared up quickly. After a sit down and a cup of tea, in fact, I felt shaken, but otherwise physically fine. This seems odd to me, since I must have collapsed or fallen pretty hard - certainly loudly enough for my parents to have heard it from a couple of rooms away - and yet I had no bruising or pain at all. By the evening I had developed a pain in my back and in my left wrist (the side I fell on), though I dont know whether to attribute these symptoms to the fall, or to stresses and strains of the rest of the day. It certainly seems odd to me that I would not feel the pains for another 14 or 15 hours after the event.

As I say, I felt absolutely fine after a mug of hot, sweet tea (the restorative powers of which I had up until that moment never fully appreciated), but two things struck me about the events almost straight away. The first was that I was very lucky - I was lucky that I didn't black out while still in the bathroom, or while holding my razor and I was lucky my parents were home. I have no memory of the seven or eight steps I must have taken along the landing before collapsing, and during that time, I passed the top of the stairs - if I'd gone over them I'd have more than likely done myself a serious injury. I fell a foot away from the edge of the radiator, which could have done some serious damage, on one side, and the edge of a wooden table piled up with boxes and plants on the other, which could also have been very painful to hit. I'm therefore massively thankful that I subconsciously managed to avoid these fates.

The second thing that came to mind was that I gained a sudden empathy for characters in television shows and movies who have been overcome by fumes, or trappped in burning buildings. It sounds silly, perhaps, but in the back of my mind, I've always been slightly dubious of the disabling effects of that kind of situation, and when putting myself in the character's position (as we all do), I generally assumed that I could have got to safety, or done whatever else was required. If, however, the effect of those situations is anything like that which I experienced, I can totally understand anyone's inability to cope. I don't really know how to describe the feeling, but it was dreamlike. Nothing particularly mattered, and every action was dictated and performed with real delay. And the period from me realising something was really wrong to falling unconscious was a maximum of ten seconds or so, and during that period I certainly didn't have full mental or physical capabilities.

In any case, I thought I'd relay that bizarre and slightly distressing moment from last Sunday for your enjoyment, utilizing the internet to its full potential as a communication medium by clogging it with meaningless personal stories.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Mamma mia, here I go again...

At the weekend, I saw what is possibly the girliest film ever. In a good way. That was Mamma Mia! I'd been to see the musical as a birthday treat when it first came out years ago and loved it and was really looking forward to the film.

A bit of background, I've loved ABBA since I was 10 when, while looking through my parents' old tapes and LPs for something to choreograph a dance to, I found my mum's copy of their "Arrival" album. It contains some of their best known songs including 'Dancing Queen', 'When I Kissed The Teacher' and "Money Money Money'. I was hooked at first listen and for a good many years, they were the only 20th century band I had ever heard or cared to listen to.

My liking of ABBA was just one of the many things that singled me out as slightly odd in secondary school and I was teased about it for quite a long time, until people realised I wasn't going to give in. I had high hopes of the film, based on memories of the musical, and in the main, it didn't disappoint.

I loved Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and I thought she was fabulous in this as Donna Sheridan. She carried the sadder parts of her character's story really well, given that the whole thing is meant to be a comedy, and revealed a more than decent singing voice. She, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters made a wonderful, if improbable, trio of best friends and their interaction was at the core of the film and really made it for me. This was the girly in a good way. The bouncing on beds, the dressing up in silly costumes to cheer up a friend, singing songs using hair brushes for microphones, telling dirty jokes, chasing males, running away from males, meeting up with long lost friends by running at each other screaming into a mad embrace. The best bit of the film for me was when Baranski and Walters' characters cheer up Donna by reminding her of her Dancing Queen days. They end up going for an impromptu dance round the island, picking up every female inhabitant along the way and ending with them all strutting their stuff along the pier before jumping or being pushed into the sea. It's a wonderfully joyous affirmation of all the fun things about being female.

The girly in a bad way was provided by Amanda Seyfried, who I completely didn't recognise from Mean Girls (guys, watch it, seriously, it's funny!), and who was completely annoying as Donna's daughter Sophie. I didn't understand why anyone would want to marry her, let alone potentially be her father. She was self-centred, indulged and idiotic and would have solved lots of her problems if she'd just got everyone together at once and explained things. It may have been that way in the stage version too, but I don't remember her character being so nearly annoying and whiny. I also think they may have streamlined things slightly for the film.

Dominic Cooper, who I knew I recognised from somewhere, and who turns out to have played Dakin in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, was suitably buff as Sophie's boyfriend Sky, but wasn't given much to do beside look tanned and sulky. And while Cooper as Dakin could quite happily have pulled off a Cuban cigar, he really couldn't as Sky. Again, memories are hazy, but I'm guessing his role might have been quite slimmed down for the film.

Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard and Pierce Brosnan are a decent trio as Donna's ex-boyfriends and Sophie's possible fathers. None of them can sing particularly brilliantly, and Pierce Brosnan sounds a bit like David Bowie would if he couldn't sing, but they do their best and provide a counterweight to all the screaming femininity that makes up a large portion of the film.

And well, the songs are as good as they ever were and I loved every one of them. Obviously, some had to be changed slightly to fit the libretto, but I didn't have any major complaints here except for what they did to 'Lay All Your Love On Me.' If I remember correctly, this song was written just before Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog of ABBA (the group was founded when two male musician friends invited their girlfriends to sing with them) finally separated and it's about urging your other half not to stray and to remember where their loyalties lie. The film re-works it as a song about Sky's jealous love for Sophie, but it really doesn't work in the film, when Amanda Seyfried is poncing about coquetteishly in a bathing suit and then starts writhing on the sand in some soft of softcore beach porn moment. It then gets even weirder when Sky's friends, all done up in flippers and snorkel come to take him off for his stag do, and proceed to do some kind of weird penguin dance in a long line. It just doesn't work.

Having said that, I thought the rest of a film was a great success and, frankly, a good deal sexier than I had thought it could be. But then I guess the missing words from the song 'Voulez-vous' are, in most people's minds "couchez avec moi, ce soir?"...

And if you're male and think you won't like it, I have to say I went with my dad and he had a good time. So you never know, it may surprise you.


This is another post unsuitable for those people not a fan of football...

Back in January, I wrote about the possibility of Sam Allerdyce leaving Newcastle, and the problems I had with the way the club and in particular the media were handling the situation. Allerdyce, of course, left the club, and Keegan was brought in. Now, less than nine months later, it's being reported that we're in the ludicrous situation of being managerless again.

I don't have as much to say this time, because really there isn't much to be said. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding about the role Keegan was expected to play, or the power he was expecting to have, but for a club like Newcastle to lose a manager who was adored by the fans, who had begun to shape a team and who had barely 20 competitive games in charge, and to do so because they wouldn't allow him to have control over the players he was managing is not only ludicrous, but also shameful.

There is quite simply no way for a manager to get his team playing well week-to-week if he cannot guarantee that he will have the same players available a week later. And a manager cannot be expected to improve a team if he is not in control of who is bought and sold. And if a manager is not in charge of which players are playing for the club, then he can't be held responsible for the team's performance.

If that was the situation at Newcastle (and it is a situation that has been rumoured to be present many times over the last decade), and it was this situation that caused Keegan to walk, then good on him, because to work under those restraints is not to manage, but to simply be a coach and a figurehead for media attention. Keegan is a better manager than that and a better man than that, and if that was the choice to be made, then leaving was the correct decision.

Frankly, I'd be concerned about the credentials of any manager willing to step into that kind of position to replace him.

Of course, if he was sacked, then it's almost more ludicrous, since we've now had four managers in the four years since Robson went (taking any recent chance of competitive success we might have had with him), and none of them appear to have been given any freedom at all. Someone needs to be given two or three full seasons to shape a team, irrespective of league position. If that cannot be guaranteed, then I wouldn't be surprised if Newcastle continue to finish low-mid-table and churn through a manager a year for the next decade.

I thought Keegan was the perfect person to take on that challenge, and for him to be forced out in such a short space of time leaves me angry and disillusioned.

UPDATE: Ok, so in actual fact, no one seems to know what the hell's going on...

UPDATE: For a worrying few days there, it looked like I might have been ranting aout a resignation that never happened, but no, he's gone.

Technological highs and lows reprised.

So, I don't want to write too much about the current state of my phone, but after mentioning previous troubles, I wanted make sure that people weren't under the impression that my telecommunicative issues were resolved.

Having finally resigned myself to buying a new handset to prevent the resetting problems I was having, and then further resigning myself to buying a pay as you go phone as the cheapest route to obtaining said handset, I did end up with a nice new shiny-looking phone. A phone with a whole other set of issues.

Problem one is that the phone seems somewhat disinclined to send multi-part messages. This means that I have to compose every message, however complex, as a single 140-character string, or risk the recipient only recieving the first part. While not insurmountable, it does lead to me spending rather more time constructing my messages than I did previously, which can hamper speedy text conversations.

Problem two is that the phone occasionally decides to cut off calls with no explaination . I don't make many calls, so it doesn't matter massively, but it's very frustrating. Luckily it usually only seems to do it once per call, so if I call the person back, it tends to be ok.
Problem three is far more annoying, and comes from the difference between the key layout on my previous and my new phone. The "1" key on my new keypad is marginally lower, which means that when typing quickly and trying to put punctuation into text messages, my thum hits slightly too high, and in fact hits the key above. The problem is that the key above is the send-message-without-confirmation button, the presence of which I have neither understood nor needed on any phone. It'll hopfully be something I'll get over as I geet used to the phone, but next time you're texting, imagine sending the message accidentally every time you use punctuation and contemplate just how astonishingly irritating that would be.

On the plus side, technologically, I finally got my hands on a laptop, specifically an ASUS Eee PC, on which I am typing this very post, whilst sitting in my living room, just for variety. I'm hoping that having a portable laptop will be something that encourages me to be a bit less tied to my desktop at home, both for blogging (and other such internetery), but also for entertainment purposes, since it'll allow me to watch media from my computer from anywhere in the house, and media from the internet from anywhere with wi-fi.

It has also reminded me just how much I hate touchpads on laptops, and a small mouse of some kind will almost certainly be my next purchase, to prevent me smashing the keyboard in frustration...

Monday, 1 September 2008

Those who can't do, teach; and those who can't teach, teach gym

Another extended absence from me, another apology, but this time I feel that I will definitely be able to begin posting more regularly, mainly because I will have more to post about now that I've started my new job. Which leads me neatly on to why I haven't been seen here recently. Since my last entry, I have moved out of my parents' house in London roughly 160 miles north to Stafford. I now have a rented one bedroom flat to call my home. It's not huge, but it's not pokey and I've already managed to make it pretty cosy, despite still having a few boxes and bags hanging around waiting to be stored away somewhere.

I have also today started my new job as a secondary school English teacher. Today was an inset day, as is tomorrow, but from Wednesday I will be embarking on teaching my own classes, for whose progress and achievement I am responsible. Scary stuff in some ways, but I'm really looking forward to getting going again after the two-month break since the end of my PGCE course. I'm teaching a nice range of classes and abilities, and I also have A Level English Language classes which, whilst daunting in some ways (I still feel like I only did A Levels myself a little while ago...), I am eager to get stuck into post-16 teaching as it's something I'm very interested in.

So yeah, what with moving, preparing for and starting my new job, and sporadic internet access (I now have broadband installed in my flat, but before that could only really access the internet from my girlfriend Hayley's house when I was there) I've not really had a chance to post here or do much other 'net stuff. But I'm back now. Hurrah.

Just to finish off, I thought I'd mention something that came up today during an English department meeting. Carol Ann Duffy's poems have been used for a long while in the AQA English Language GCSE syllabus, at least since I did my GCSEs several years ago. One poem - Education For Leisure - describes in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek fashion a person killing and destroying things, ending on an ambiguous cliffhanger where the person might be about to stab someone. This poem has now been removed from the syllabus, apparently because some teachers might be uncomfortable teaching a poem about stabbing. I don't believe that explanation for one second. It's the powers that be getting scared of including something with a current and controversial issue. They don't want to be seen to be putting the idea of stabbing people into the heads of today's youth. Firstly, isn't the best way to get young people to consider the issues surrounding knife crime to present them with material that will provoke discussion? I certainly think so. And secondly, I'm pretty sure a disaffected youth won't decide to go and stab someone after reading a poem in an English lesson.

Surely if this is the case we need to remove any texts that have stabbing in them. Romeo & Juliet has just been put back on the Key Stage 3 syllabus, and that does more than suggest stabbing, it contains both murders and suicides. So why not get rid of it? Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III and many other Shakespeare plays taught in schools and colleges are pretty much bloodbaths in terms of the amount of deaths, so why haven't they been mentioned? Unfortunately I can't find any internet links about the removal of the poem, or to a text of the poem itself, but I still wanted to write something about it as I just think it's a great shame when things like this happen, and I hope that enough English teachers show their disagreement with this decision that it is reversed or changed in some way. I'd be interested to hear anyone else's views on this as, being both an English graduate and English teacher my opinion is bound to be biased in some way.