Friday, November 20, 2009

EU president: smart boy wanted; not too smart

Step forward Herman van Rompuy. He might seem like the archetypical boring, bespectacled Benelux bureaucrat who always end up running these things. However, the new EU president is, apparently, an accomplished writer of haikus.

I think all comments on European matters ought to be made through this medium. In that spirit, here's mine:

Baroness Ashton.
Come on, who the fuck is she?
Please say it's a joke.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Henry, quelle con

One cannot help but have a certain regard for the French - jammy, cheating bastards they may be. Which other country, having sneaked into the World Cup through a blatant bit of robbery would turn to their philosophers to make sense of it all?

They hauled a star philosopher onto the radio this morning to expound on the implications for the national soul. "There was cheating," said Alain Finkielkraut, a specialist in moral matters. "We are faced with a real matter of conscience," he said on Europe1. "From the moral point of view I would almost have preferred a defeat to a victory in these conditions. We certainly have nothing to be proud of." The key word there is "almost".

Quite. At least the Irish know how to respond when on the receiving end of a blatant injustice. If the roles were reversed I'm not certain they would know how to cope. Just as if, to give a prediction now, England go out on penalties in the quarter finals and the Germans go on to the final, we'll all know how to behave. For it to happen the other way round would be strange indeed.

Curious fact about this World Cup - of all the nations that lie on the Eurasian land mass between Korea (both bits) and Greece, not a single one has qualified.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trollied Tuesday: Shackleton's stash of scotch

This is one of the most worthwhile pieces of scientific research I have heard of in a long while:

A whisky that sustained explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole a century ago is to be brought back to life by drilling a bottle out of the Antarctic ice.

Whisky giant Whyte & Mackay has asked a team of New Zealand explorers to bring back a long-lost sample of McKinlay and Co whisky during a January polar expedition.

Two crates of the long- defunct "Rare Old" brand are frozen in the ice 97 miles from the pole, discarded by Shackleton and his men when they abandoned their 1909 polar mission.

It is possible, of course, that had they decided to drink the stuff rather than burying it under ice, they might have reached the Pole. No matter. The blend is described as "heavy and peaty" in accordance with tastes a hundred years ago. I must say, it sounds just the job for the Antarctic climate.

A pity too that people lost the taste for that type of drink - it makes contemporary blended whiskies sound rather bland in comparison. But a note of a caution here: there are a great many whiskies that have died out - if you consider some of the ones that survived there is no reason to assume that the ones that didn't were any good.

One should consider the wise words of Al Fastier, who is leading the expedition. He insisted he had no wish to taste the whisky, saying: "It's better to imagine it than to taste it. That way it keeps its mystery."

The romance attached to this worthwhile venture transcends mere curiosity about how the Scotch might taste. Rather, it is the possibility that tasting it will perform a sort of osmotic time travel that will transport you back to last great age of exploration, an era of undiscovered frontiers when no self respecting explorer would set off without a stock of tweeds and a crate of whisky to sustain him. An age, moreover, when the (now-defunct) Dublin Evening Telegraph could greet Shackleton's return with the wonderful headline "South Pole Almost Reached By An Irishman".

Imagine how disappointing it would be if his drinks cabinet turned out to have been filled with cheap rot gut.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Apparently sex is quite a good way of grabbing people's attention

Of all the various dribblings about the news that Call Girl/Blogger Belle de Jour is really a research scientist one comment stands out in this piece by Rowan Pelling:

She was very smart indeed – always the mark of the born courtesan – and a gifted, witty writer.

Quite. Of all the bits of conventional wisdom one hears (don't have red wine with fish, no invading force has ever won a war in Afghanistan - really?) by far the most infuriating is the argument that men aren't interested in a woman who is as bright or brighter than them.

Now doubtless there are a great many men who are indeed insecure enough to be put off by intelligence in a woman - and a great number of women insecure enough to convince themselves that such creatures are entirely representative as an excuse for their own romantic failures or shortcomings. But this isn't remotely true.

Quite apart from the fact that if there is anything clandestine, furtive (even sordid, if you like) about a relationship, the smarter the other party the better - properly (or even improperly) speaking, one wants the mind as well as the body stimulated. And to do that you want a girl with a bit of imagination, after all.


Another interesting thing, quite apart from the fact that most condemnatory reactions to the story have come from self-styled feminists who resent the fact that Dr Brooke Magnanti hasn't had a rough enough time of it, is her rationale for becoming a prostitute.

When she could no longer afford her rent, she started to think: “What can I do that I can start doing straightaway, that doesn’t require a great deal of training or investment to get started, that’s cash in hand and that leaves me spare time to do my work in?”

It may be coincidence, but this is echoes the arguments of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in Superfreakonomics, who explore how in prostitution, like any other business, people make similar calculations and respond to incentives.

One can also see this phenomenon in publishing and journalism. I'm afraid this next observation really is going to be a variant on the sex sells theme, but media organisations know the high class hooker/writer unmasked as research scientist story is a godsend because people love a little salaciousness. An even better example is the Freakonomics crew themselves. Their book is studded (if that's the right word) with facts that pander to the reader's endless curiosity about the seamier sides of life (Eg: hookers in Chicago are more likely to sleep with a cop than to be arrested by one, pimps are far more useful to society than estate agents - that one probably isn't much of a surprise really). It's one way of flogging a book about economics, after all.

Any way, so much for the supply. As for the demand, there is the argument that one reason why people (well, men mainly) are willing to fork out vast sums to call girls (£300 an hour in Belle de Jour's case) is that they get something they can't get from their other halves. This might come down to willingness to perform certain sexual acts, of course, but - to return to the Pelling argument - it would strongly suggest that in many cases intelligence, wit and imagination would all be highly desirable too.

It would be nice to think you can't put a price on these attributes. But, of course, that often isn't the case at all.

[Amusing, but distracting typo now corrected]

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Sometimes it really isn't the the thought that counts

There are those who are wondering why the press is making such a big deal about Gordon Brown's error strewn letter of condolence to the mother of a dead soldier. One angle worth considering this: it's something that is drummed into all journalists very early on (in some cases by bitter experience)

Getting someone's name wrong is one of the worst errors you can commit.

Put it this way, I know people who've been threatened with the sack for less; people understandably take that sort of thing very personally because it is, well, personal. More generally, it does look - at the very least - somewhat graceless and unempathetic to send such a shocking scrawl as a letter of condolence. (Realising you've misspelled the name, scrawling it out and then carrying on with the letter is thoughtlessness taken to a quite breathtaking level).

Still, given that Brown will be getting his P45 in a few months anyway, it would be best all round to accept this a dreadful, albeit unintentional blunder. That Brown somehow managed to compound the inadvertent insult by the more calculated refusal to apologise is sadly all to typical.

As someone with a fair amount of experience in editing other people's work, there's a rather obvious comment I could make about the importance here of getting other pairs of eyes to look over what's been written. I'm not entirely sure why this isn't the case at Number 10. I might, however, observe that it is always the prima donnas, louts, ego maniacs and bullies who kick up the most almighty fuss if anyone dares alter a single character they have written, and who take even the gentlest correction as a personal slight, that generally produce the most dangerous errors. I have no idea whether or not this applies in this instant.

UPDATE: What was it I was saying about getting names wrong? I'm told The Sun website's gone and done it. (No idea if it's genuine). Blood on the carpet at Wapping, I fear. (via Harry's Place).

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Trollied Tuesday: The Colton Arms

As vaguely promised, this week's Trollied Tuesday is in honour of Fancyapint's Best London Pub of the Past 10 Years.

Can pubs be understood in terms of music? I do hope so. If that is the case, then The Colton Arms may be compared to the best of Morrissey's work. (Now My Heart is Full, seems to sum it up ideally) It will not be to everybody's taste, for sure; but to those who appreciate it, there is nothing else quite like it.* That the pub is rather hard to find (I've managed to get lost in the back streets of Barons Court while trying to find it) adds to this hermetic feel.

Note this is not actually a trip back in time - just as well, the past could only disappoint. However, to step into this pub is to enter an imagined past, one in which civility, gentility and understated grace dominate, and to lament the more disagreeable aspects of modernity (loud music and. It's a pub for real ale, barmen in ties, dimpled pint pots and an almost vanished London - really it could be a black and white movie; some of the clientele appear to be extras in an Ealing comedy.

A session in a pub may have many characteristics; but to become elegaic takes something remarkable indeed.

Picture shamelessly borrowed from Fancyapint.

* Although the Churchill Arms, a pub that manages to be both English and Irish at the same time, may be even more Morrissean.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Crime of the day

Who ever would have guessed that dressing up as a sheep in the company of a group of Aberdeen football fans could go badly wrong?

A 24-year-old football fan dressed as a sheep suffered serious burns to his arms and legs when his suit caught fire on a train in Fife.

Further comment would be superfluous.