Saturday, December 25, 2010

Lighting Up Time

Having thought that Paris had eschewed much of the vulgarities of Oxford Street, I was on the Champs-Elysées  last night which was flooded with lights; these, it would seem, themed differently every winter, with light-drenched trees stretching all the way from the Place de l'Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. This year the lightshow consisted of electric blue neon on every tree which looked like snowfall trickling down on them. I’m such a tourist..

Gala Night

Notre Dame de Paris. The eldest daughter of Rome. Endless masses and hoop-la attracting the faithful, faithless, homeless and the merely curious. Tonight, however, is gala night. His Eminence Andre Vingt-Trois the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris was the Master of Ceremonies at Midnight Mass. I felt it might be quite a trip to trot along, not actually ever having been within pea-shooting range of a man who's met the Pope. Slipping unnoticed near the front of the assembled multitudes awaiting admission, just as the gigantic, thirteen ton bourdon bell, Emmanuel, woke up all the drunks asleep on the rue de Rivoli, I passed through a rather desultory security check as frozen, disinterested members of the gendarmerie peered briefly into the odd handbag or two. I slipped past them like a spiritual terrorist almost at the head of the line, just missing 'Adeste Fideles'. The old chap, fetchingly attired in white with little black crosses, wheezed through the liturgy, excellently choreographed, his august presence permanently incense-wreathed. I was surprised he didn't have an asthma attack. He took the opportunity to address the crowd on the evils of abortion, warming sonorously to his theme not once but on a number of occasions during a twelve minute homily. it occurred to me that the brouillard of holy smoke which quite obviously followed him around wherever he went had had the effect of cosily insulating him against the messier aspects of human reproduction and the prohibitive cost of food, clothing and higher education. The Gipsy was outraged and muttered darkly throughout most of his address about the inappropriateness of celibate old men attempting to lecture the rest of us about the advantages of full quivers. She flawlessly joined in the Credo in Latin, however, which we both found worrying. The music was, of course, outstanding, but I left during Rutter's  "I saw Three Ships", declining a piece of cake. Organ recital at La Madeleine tomorrow. What fun.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Over the Top

Paris at Christmas is much less exciting than London, provided that said excitement is measured in quantities of tinsel, kerbside Santas fragrant with cheap sherry  and mindless, endless repetitions of Frosty the Snowman in the Oxford Street drizzle.
Paris is more restrained and street corners are not routinely bedecked with all manner of non-biodegradable material.Inside Galeries Lafayette, however, it's quite another matter...
British Christmases were always rather jolly with turkey, mince pies, crackers which often failed to explode  and paper hats which fell down over Uncle Dick's nose as he slept off the excesses in front of the TV at three o'clock watching HM tell us how much she loved being Queen and so on.
Here, we'll be doing things a little differently and making something special for Christmas Eve which will look a little bit like this. Nice.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bikinis and Drivel

"Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."

Aaron Levinstein.

It occasionally amuses me to surf mathematical websites for interesting problems. Statistical ones are a minefield of misdirection and I quite liked this one.

A company is expanding and has 455 new jobs, 70 white collar, the rest blue. For the white collar jobs there were 200 male and 200 female applicants. 15% of the men and 20% of the women were hired. For the blue collar jobs 400 men and 100 women applied. 75% of the men and 85% of the female applicants were hired.

In summary:

An official alleging discrimination noticed that many more men than women were hired. The company responded by pointing out that a greater percentage of women were hired in both blue and white collar categories , thus if anything there was positive discrimination in favour of women. The official then produced his own statistics. A female had a 58% chance of denial compared with a 45% chance for a man. Both sets of results taken collectively are counterintuitive, so who is right? The answer is, of course, both.

Would anybody with a logical turn of mind like to point out the flaw in the reasoning?

Creating policy based on statistics like this is doomed to failure, whether the policy is concerned with how many new settlements to build in East Jerusalem or which school is ‘better’ based upon league tables.

It's True!

He's real! Santa Claus is in the Scriptures!
There is a prize of a hand-crafted Humility Badge for any reader who can correctly identify a) the passage b) the version and c) the denomination.
The last 'ho' in verse 6 has clearly been redacted.
The winner of the Badge will have it taken off him or her for wearing it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pillar to Post

Frankfurt airport is vast. It extends for seemingly miles in all directions and in spite of immense passenger throughput, it rarely seems to be crowded. Unless of course, two inches of snow falls unexpectedly in Northern Europe. Newspapers headline with "Chaos", which I really never quite believed until my aircraft took off almost four hours late from the desert Shangri-La which I call home en route for wild and bitter weather in the North. I missed my connection, of course, which normally means a peaceful - in former times alcohol-sodden - wait for as long as it took to reconfigure everyone's flights and get them on their way. Being herded from pillar to post in unfamiliar surroundings along with two and a half thousand others is disconcerting and frays the nerves, some giving way to hysteria because they have flown halfway around the world for a wedding which will almost certainly start without them. I was on standby which can mean anything from 'there might be room on the 2:30, guv' to 'be prepared to sleep on the floor in the airport, perhaps for days, Sir'.
OK. Fine. Excellent. Being adept at slipping between the interstices of energy wasted by others, a  moment seized and the absence of luggage secured me a place on the next flight. Enough time to enjoy a little German hospitality, without beer. And it's pot-au-feu with Aubrac beef or magret de canard  stuffed with foie gras and figs at the other end. In this particular case, it was better to arrive than to travel hopefully. Oh, yes.

Peace on Earth

and goodwill toward men.
Quite so. Last Saturday, two women were attacked for unspecified reasons in a forested area popular with hikers south of Jerusalem. One, an American, is dead. A British-born girl survived. Two Arab men approached them, asking for water. One noticed that one of the girls was wearing a Star of David and the stabbing began. Mindless and unprovoked violence - so what. Happens a thousand times a day somewhere or another. Alcohol-fuelled? Unlikely. Racist? Almost certainly. The emotional fallout however in the survivor's life and the trauma experienced will remain.
Normally, this isn't something I'd want to comment on, but the survivor was a part-timer at Shoresh Tours, associated with Christ Church and CMJ, where I spent some formative and lifechanging time. The breath of undiluted evil which prompted such acts blew fleetingly across my face.
How can one find a place of self-protection, from which forgiveness can flow, I wonder? I was watching a movie the other day which chronicled the stages in the recovery of a victim of unprovoked assault. "Savage" is the story of a young Irish photographer who, on his way home, is brutally attacked, seemingly at random, by two sadistic muggers brandishing a Stanley knife who leave him with numerous mental and physical scars. Finding it difficult to come to terms with what has happened, he becomes increasingly angry and hungry for any kind of revenge. He descends into a nightmare of tit-for-tat thinking, reinforcing the maxim that 'violence is its own father'.
The conflict between peace, appeasement and vengeance is one with which I contend, emotionally, spiritually and sometimes materially, and I suppose that I am like everyone else, hoping that the lamb will suddenly, inexplicably bare its teeth and the wolf will flee. Forgiveness is costly. It may even be the softer, easier way to descend into the gutter and return evil for evil. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gentle Lies

Propaganda  might be defined as getting people to believe exactly what you want them to believe by gently but persistently lying to them. When an opinion hardens into a principle which coalesces into a doctrine, the world becomes less flexible, less amenable to change and more susceptible to violent opposition to it. Most people don't take the time or expend the requisite effort in order to unearth the truth - whatever the truth is. Jack Nicholson's famous line from 'A Few Good Men' still reverberates "You can't handle the truth!"
The plural 'you' perhaps. And, quite probably, we can't. But Western style democracy gives us the platform from which to try, which is why Wikileaks is tolerated, students can protest loudly over tuition fees and the British prime minister is on record as asserting  "I am proud to be a Zionist".
The long Damoclean shadow which is Iran will present the free world with the next significant Doomsday scenario of the 21st century.
I found these two clips illuminating since they offer two separate propagandist perspectives. Iranium - buttressed by and weighted politically by 'people who know', is rebutted by a soft, dewy-eyed, we-wouldn't-harm-a-fly response, the latter's effect rather spoiled by images of bloodstained Palestinian children and the inevitable side-swipe at Israel.
Whatever remains of my hot prophetic blood, if not boiling, still gently simmers.

Monday, December 13, 2010

There's a Hole in my Bucket

Conversing with a friend today, we were speculating about  how 'leakage' actually happens, Is it brute force - battering a firewall down by repeated attacks like medieval siege works, hoping to punch holes in the bulwarks and gain entrance by force of arms? Probably not. The likelihood is that leakage takes place by a much more obvious mechanism. Military and diplomatic Internet isn't the same as the civilian one. ARPANet runs home to mama in the form of the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) which is "a system of interconnected computer networks used by the United States Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State to transmit classified information (up to and including information classified SECRET) by packet switching over the TCP/IP protocols in a 'completely secure' environment". Thanks, Wiki. It also provides services such as hypertext document access and electronic mail. As such, SIPRNet is the DoD’s classified version of the civilian Internet. Accidental leakage is impossible since there's no electronic connection between civilian and classified systems and as such it ought to be bomb proof. But it isn't because people with classified clearance can just plug in a flash drive in a fit of pique and download all they want. PFC Bradley Manning’s motivation for leaking military information from SIPRNET to Wikileaks seems to be down to little more than disillusionment with American foreign policy. On the motivation scale, Manning’s motivation doesn’t seem urgent compared to, say, someone being blackmailed or being motivated by having a gun held to a family member’s head, or tempted by a hot tub full of jewellery and hookers. That’s real motivation. I’m not going to speculate on how much information has leaked from SIPRNET by people being “properly” motivated. But, I suspect that it's rather a lot...
Bradley Manning was held for a time here in Kuwait, pending further legal proceedings and he faces up to 52 years in jail. The hole in the bucket here is simply giving military personnel with axes to grind a way of grinding them so as to cause a good deal of damage. Manning may pay yet more dearly than he imagined. At least one senator and a congressman have called for the death penalty.

All Quiet...

Erich Maria Remarque's seminal novel about the First World War is mistranslated into English. "All Quiet on the Western Front" in German translates more as "Nothing much happened on the..."
There's often a sense here of 'nothing much happening'. It quite gets the juices flowing when something does. Last summer I lent my car to HandyMan, being one of the few apparently trustworthy drivers I know. He told me that he'd run out of gas when the gauge still read 80km left. I nodded and smiled, privately thinking that he had just been careless and it served him right. Until this evening. Wall-to wall correction of exam papers is a dispiriting exercise since one is left with the impression that if what one's students write down is any guide, one might as well have been lecturing in Vietnamese, thus I thought a trip to the Motor Show in Mishref might be a pleasant diversion. Just as I left the complex to come home, the car coughed apologetically like a dyspeptic sheep, with 98km remaining in the gas tank, and I was left wondering how I and the car could make it home before midnight.
Those who live here will find this hard to believe. An American lady, early thirties, well-presented - you get the idea - driving a  brand-new, white Porsche Carrera 911 GT3 (with black leather interior) pulled up, asked if she could help, drove me exhilaratingly fast  to the gas station, haggled with an Indian coolie to provide a container for a few litres of gas, dropped me back at my car and I was on my way within half an hour. I was so pumped I exceeded the speed limit in my freshly fuelled vehicle and probably picked up a ticket.

Not much happens here. A couple of throbbing engines from the Motor Show.

Disclosure and Rage

I've been resisting the temptation to write about Wikileaks and Julian Assange for quite some time, not least because every blogger north of Antarctica has said all that there is to be said and more. The two camps' flags are fairly obvious and battle lines quite sharply delineated, so there's little to add. A number of so-called Internet activists bang on about the Freedom of Information Act and the government's widely suspected non-compliance, non-disclosure of things we should be allowed as citizens to know, blah, while others hold the view that diplomatic discussions held in camera have a right, if not to privacy, but to be decently clad in proper diplomatic language before being paraded before a largely gullible public. Additionally, it's almost impossible for people to form accurate opinions given an avalanche of data so labyrinthine and presented so far out of context. We may have a right to information, as long as we accept responsibility about what to do with it. Mr Assange himself declared, however, that in reference to Britain’s Official Secrets Act,  “The dead hand of feudalism still rests on every British shoulder; we plan to remove it.”  Perhaps a spot of the old feudal spirit aka loyalty might not go amiss.

It appears that there is a rather lonely individual at the vortex of all the ballyhoo. I am reminded of a quote from Orwell " He was an embittered atheist, the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him". For 'God', read 'government'. Perhaps atheism and anarchy are bedfellows, or at least, uneasy allies. I thought that both Christopher Hitchens and Julian Assange had similarly defensive facial features; both look either secretly enraged or as if they're trying hard not to cry.
The possession of a physics and mathematics degree confers automatic intellectual superiority frequently without the wisdom to deal with it, and this, together with spectacularly inventive programming skills, does make Assange something of a loose cannon, a force to be reckoned with. Which, I rather suspect, is what he wants. “Notice me!” he shouts.  But, is he a cyberterrorist or Internet freedom fighter? Some people seem to think that he’s really done rather well and got A grades for his homework. He received the 2008 Economist Freedom of Expression Award and the 2010 Sam Adams Award. Utne Reader named him as one of the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World". In 2010, New Statesman ranked Assange number 23 among the "The World's 50 Most Influential Figures". Others less inclined to leap on a journalistic runaway express are more candid, pointing out his almost nomadic lifestyle and at least one former associate described him as ‘weird”. I wonder if the population in Wandsworth nick would agree?
But, what of the reclusive Mr Assange himself. He doesn’t present well to the cameras, having as he does these days, something of a hunted look about his eyes, as if he’d been remorselessly bullied at school for being a clever-trousers. It’s interesting to observe that he’s so ticked off some awfully important people that they’ve stopped his pocket money and want to keep him in detention for quite a long time. It would seem that some of his friends have been caught scrumping as well; crashing MasterCard’s server is no mean achievement. But, of course, that had nothing to do with him. Of course not.
It remains to be seen whether Wikileaks will unearth some private emails from top persons speculating as to the best way of giving Mr Assange six of the best, trousers down, without making it look as if his First Amendment rights were being violated.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


"Holy Rollers" was a derisive term coined to describe Pentecostal Christians who became ecstatic during worship. It's also the title of a film with the unlikely storyline involving the recruitment of young Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn to smuggle Ecstasy tablets from Europe into the USA, which happened to be true.  In their black hats, dark suits and side-curls, the stream of young Hasidic men flying home from Europe seemed unlikely to raise the suspicions of United States Customs officials. Hasidim means literally "loving kindness" and, ironically, is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy through the popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism as fundamental aspects of the faith. The hero is Sam Gold, a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn and being trained as a rabbi. His father hopes to arrange a excellent match for him, one that will raise him above the poverty his family has known. As the boy grows older, he shows an aptitude for business which his family firmly discourages.
As Sam begins to show signs of resenting living up to his family’s expectations, he is approached by the older brother of his best friend, who persuades both cloistered innocents to take an exciting trip overseas to bring back ‘medicine’ to those denied it in the US. His innocence is his protection at airport security desks and he becomes adept at muling large quantities of illegal substances. He  becomes captivated by the lure of the life he has glimpsed and begins to form new relationships with the fast, exotic criminal world, starting to lead a double life. His business instincts prove valuable and are applauded by his Israeli dealer. Eventually Sam himself is recruiting innocent Hasidic kids and experimenting with the drug he smuggles. His parting words to his new recruits are.."mind your business and act Jewish."

Sam is unable to keep his clandestine actions from his family and his community. As the ordered life pattern of his childhood begins to unravel, he becomes closer to the new, dangerous people in his life, only to realise that they are enmeshed in conflict and despair that neither he nor they can resolve. His own dilemma is whether to turn back to the securities of his former life or continue down a road he now knows leads to destruction.

The film is interspersed by snippets of Rabbinic teaching in Sam's shul - the Adamic story is presented as a choice - when HaShem (Hebrew for 'the Name' - Lev 24:11)  calls to Adam in the Garden, Adam has only two choices, to move closer, or to move further away. Sam struggles to rediscover his God on the quicksand between the temptations of the world and the straitjacket of his ancient traditions. Regardless of the choices he makes, he will hurt others in his life if he wants to save his own. The movie sharply demonstrates Chaucer's Squire's maxim that "bihoueth hire a ful longe spone.. That shal ete with a feend", or,"he who drinks soup with the Devil needs a very long spoon".

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Flyaway Paper

Today, I attended a "winter fayre". The Old English spelling ought to be a dead giveaway. Lots of fat, aproned butchers carving up ucculentsay oastray orkpay (it's Pig Latin, people, you'll work it out), mulled ale, rosy-cheeked matrons, roast chestnuts and happy, laughing children warmly wrapped up in bright hand-knitted scarves against winter chills. Not. Instead, scruffy secondhand goods and kids stuffing themselves on junk food. To one who gets nervous at the Friday Market, this was purgatory par excellence, not least because the upside was that I went through my bookshelves like a devouring flame, removing all the tasteless impulse buys with attractive frontal imagery on Virgin's bestseller stall bought in moments of cerebral meltdown, as well as titles which were letting the side down by having become dog-eared. I insist on a tidy library. It is now refreshed, cleansed, leaner and meaner. What was surprising to me is that I did not instantly find another stall and restock the shelves with more hundreds of pages of pulp. After disgorging the books I left almost immediately, which was only right since I hadn't paid to get in, simply barged unchallenged to the front of the queue, shoving people to right and left with a large shoulder bag.
I'm not good with incompleteness, tasks unfinished, or tasks waiting to be finished. I get fretted if I have something to do that I haven't really prepared for properly mentally. In consequence when I went through the bookshelves, I did so at high speed, knowing that I needed to leave the house in ten minutes  and if I actually gave thought to whether or not a particular book was to leave home for good, I'd be lost in a welter of indecision and they'd all get put back on the shelves, as if handling them would confer some kind of sentimental attachment to them. I felt like a guard at Auschwitz.
So, job done. The books melted like snowflakes in May - I revisited the stall a few minutes after depositing them and almost everything had gone. Perhaps my cast-offs aren't quite as unreadable as I'd thought.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Crookt Age

It's winter. Change is in the air; I can smell it, like a faraway sea breeze that just catches the edge of the senses. It's too easy here to let the ebbs and flows and predictable routines sing the lullaby that things are just going to carry on, just as they are, and tomorrows will blur into others without a wrinkle on the smooth broadcloth of our lives.
And yet.
There is a cloud. Not a large one - just the size of a man's little finger at present, gathering momentum, perhaps. And then again, could be that I'd like the cloud to be there, imagining it growing before my eyes into a real perfect storm, carrying me - wherever.
Perhaps I'm responding subliminally to the unpredictable weather in Northern Europe - 40cm of snow on December 1st on Kielder Water is unheard-of.  I wonder when people are going to start talking about "when records began"?
I was reminded of Britten's impossibly difficult 'Spring Symphony', set to lyrics from George Chapman's 'Masque of the Twelve Months' Perhaps I'm beginning to feel my own crookt age...

"Shine out, fair Sun, with all your heat,
Show all your thousand-coloured light!
Black Winter freezes [to] his seat;
The grey wolf howls, he does so bite;
Crookt Age on three knees creeps the street;
And eats for cold his aching feet;
The stars in icicles arise."