Month: April 2010

Lying Pixels

I think it fair to say that  I wouldn’t voluntarily jobswap with someone who earns their daily bread by cleaning sewers. If, however, there is the remotest chance of a photographer lurking behind his silly piece of twenty thousand dollar fish-eyed box, which he probably had to sell his mother to pay for, I’d seriously consider it. If he makes me stand there, usually on the back row, waiting for the bloody photocopying lady, who is never on time for anything, to show up for the school photo and has only been invited because she’s a personal favourite of the Boss’s, I would  happily trade places with someone who collects batshit for a living. 
Like most well-adjusted people, I dislike having my photograph taken. I still ask myself in my more lucid moments why people collect fifteen hundred pictures of themselves and upload them all on to their Facebook page? Worse still, there are another five thousand on a hard drive somewhere.
I won’t  smile to order, and if I try, I either look menacing, deranged or frightened. Here’s a little secret. The camera does tell lies. Great big, whopping ones. I know what I look like; I look at myself in the mirror every morning. A camera makes me look like me but with special needs. My passport photograph is of the Yorkshire Ripper with a red nose. And it’s why, in virtually all group photographs, I look like the village idiot, inconvenient at weddings.
Here’s a few little tips. If you are constrained by force majeure to be part of a group photograph, there are a number of things you can do by way of passive-aggressive sabotage. If you’re on the edge in a group picture, you’ll tend to lean in. Don’t. Leaning in makes you look desperate to be part of a group that obviously hates you. Most cameras for group work will have slightly wide-angled lenses which have the effect of making your already slightly pointed head look even more so, so you look like an alien. Here’s the strategy. When situated on the edge of a group, make a point of leaning out, ignoring the bleats from the man at the front to ‘huddle up a bit’. And don’t forget to bare your teeth and go slightly cross-eyed. It screws the shot for everyone else, which ticks off the photographer, which serves him right for having bad teeth and for being a photographer.
This little tantrum originated from the fact that I have had to have new passport photographs taken, which is unsettling.

How to Cheat in Exams

As another school year draws to its grinding conclusion, students around the world are preparing to face Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to Promethean hubris all the rest of the year – the end of year exams. The implacable executrix of justice – and sacrificial goddess of all educators – gets her own back on our behalf. So, here are a few simple tips on how to circumvent her mendacity with minimal effort. I make no reference to any people groups in particular, but, you all know who you are….
  • If asked to write a critique about a poem, write the title of the poem followed by the words “is about man’s relationship with nature.” This will appeal to the marker who’s probably a tree-hugging anorak.
  • If you’re going to permanently tattoo answers on your forearm, make sure a) they are correct – have a grown-up check them first for you – b) you tattoo them the right way round – important for physics – and make sure it’s for an exam in a subject you really love.
  • Have everyone take out their textbooks and cheat all at once, sometimes referred to as the ‘Oh, Captain, my Captain’ principle. They can’t fail everybody. Or, can they?
  • Offer the examiner money. It sometimes works, really it does, if the price is right. Mathematicians are expensive. Be advised.
  • When passing notes that have answers written on them, be sure not to label the note “Test Answers”, ’cause it’s a bummer if you get caught.
  • Some schools equip classrooms with hidden cameras to catch cheaters, or entrepreneurs, whichever you prefer. A simple low-inductance capacitor bank appropriately modulated with a three-way phase adapter discharged into a single-loop antenna can send out an electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling all cameras within a three-block radius. This will give you a three point five minute window at the most. Use it well. Regrettably, however, your BlackBerry upon which you had been relying for external text updates, will also fail to function. Don’t get caught plugging it in, will you…
  • It is notoriously difficult to cheat on most applied mathematics tests, since the examiner actually expects you to apply what you have learned. It’s probably best to avoid taking these classes altogether.
  • No matter how small, crib notes can be conspicuous, especially when used as missiles. Commit them to memory for an innovative, unencumbered cheating method. Carpe diem.

Visiting Sodom

I wonder if we can construct a general theory which pulls together institutional stupidity, hierarchy and satire. I think the rich tradition of Juvenal, whose satire was more savage than most, was at the back of the minds of the hamstrung young intellects at the FO  when they came up with a beautifully spoofed piece which was spectacularly leaked, prompting a grovelling apology from their lords and masters. The substance of the piece involved suggesting that as part of his pastoral responsibilities, HH could be invited to open an abortion clinic and bless a gay marriage during September’s visit to the UK. Excellent!  Important people make the joke funny – if Father Brendan  from the Church of the Assumption had been paying a pastoral visit, nobody would have cared much if his route took him through the red light district or whether he handed out a few condoms to a couple of local tarts or not. The aura of, well, holiness, surrounding HH meant that nobody had the stones to ring him up and ask if it was OK to have a bit of fun at his expense, to which he might have replied ‘Well, OK, lads, but do try to keep it more or less decent, won’t you?’, thus denuding him of the magisterial mystery so necessary for the maintenance of his office. The junior civil servant responsible for distributing the leaked document has been reassigned to Francis Campbell’s office, the UK’s ambassador to the Vatican, where he will be in daily contact with those his actions most offended. “We couldn’t think of a more sadistic punishment for him”, an FO spokesman said. Tee hee.
The image is of the Foreign Secretary, who, like the prophet Ezra, is clearly ‘appalled’. Quite right. Oh, yes. None of the above is true.

Faith, Aliens and Herbal Remedies

I was speaking to someone the other day about homeopathy. What surprised me was not this person’s robust defence of the practice,  – in fact they made no attempt to do so – it was my own knee-jerk reaction to it. I trotted out the usual scientific line about the quantities being insufficient for any appropriately beneficial metabolism and it was only after a little research that it became clear that whether or not homeopathy has any benefit, my reaction to one of its proponents was less than adequate. It further became clear to me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I had fallen for a stereotype, or more properly an archetype which did not necessarily have any factual basis. I then began to wonder how many other things I simply ‘reacted’ to or dismissed without any clarity of thought. I know someone well, a reasonable, well-educated individual, who believes in a literal Adam and Eve. I don’t, but my reaction to their belief was an urge to dismantle it in the light of what I might suppose to be superior rational thinking, when the postulate requires nothing of the kind, since concepts like ‘belief’ in the sense of ‘faith’ often (I won’t say ‘never’) cross over the tramline of  empirical or provable science. Stephen Hawking, in the light of massive advances in theoretical physics has suggested the hitherto unprovable proposition that since it is likely that there are billions of planets on which ‘life’ might evolve, the probability of there not being sentience – in the same way as we might comprehend it – is remote somewhere in the Universe. Were we able to and if we were to decide to ‘make friends’ with it or them, as SETI seems bent on achieving,we may find ourselves the subject of unhealthy interest from civilisations more advanced and possibly considerably more rapacious and malevolent than our own, with life forms possibly having brains shaped like pretzels, according to Murray Gell-Mann. A small quantity of malevolence might be able, it seems, to poison a planet. Much the same as reversed homeopathy, I suppose…

England and Saint George

Brits – or more properly the English here stoutly and – it seems – somewhat forlornly celebrate St George’s Day, now yesterday, which is ironic, rather like ageing groupies follow a long-forgotten pop idol. There probably was a historical figure called George, who was a prominent Christian in the reign of the pagan Roman Emperor, Diocletian, and was killed in 303. One version of his life records that he was an officer who refused to carry out the Emperor’s order that all soldiers must make sacrifices to pagan gods, for which he was hideously tortured to death. A very different story is told in Gibbon’s “Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire”. He alleged that George was “an odious priest”, a Cappadocian wiesguy who was chased out of Palestine for selling dodgy bacon to the army. He fled to Egypt, adopted a new and growing brand of Christianity called Arianism. With this as leverage, he got himself appointed Archbishop of Alexandria in place of the genuinely saintly Athanasius the Great, whose authorship of the Creed is now widely disputed, whereupon he instigated a reign of such “cruelty and avarice” that he was lynched by the outraged citizens. Ah. No dragon-slaying myth here, then…

Shakespeare was, a fan, of course. Before Harfleur, where it took eight thousand English, armed to the teeth with bows and arrows nearly a month to overcome 400 determined Frenchmen in late summer 1415. Henry V’s stirring speech roused English blood – you know, the one beginning “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…” or “Come on and get slaughtered for the Motherland, lads..”  I recall learning it at school. This is how it ends…
“And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Henry V Act 3 Scene 1

Makes you proud to be English. Yeah, right. I wonder if it would work at the Six Nations in Stade de France? Probably not. The French haven’t forgotten Agincourt, either.


I’ve always been fascinated by hands. A friend particularly likes the work of Lucian Freud – perhaps a modern British equivalent of the towering Renaissance masters, who also seems interested in them. His hands are always a little larger than life, crafted as workpieces – hands that do things. These hands are obviously female, from “Girl with a White Dog”.
I think the mark of a master is that so much can be read into a small area of canvas.
These are maternal hands, a little careworn, the hands of a nurturer, hands that have held precious things.

My hands have been described as ‘cricketer’s hands’, functional, not particularly beautiful, square, even safe. Like Escher’s perhaps.

Thinking in Circles

“Here is the Earth”, ran the T shirt slogan. “Don’t spend it all at once”. I’ve never been, or felt the need to become, a bearded, tree-hugging anorak so the passage of Earth Day today, actually celebrated in almost two hundred countries worldwide, usually fails to ripple my profligate, wasteful conscience. My father didn’t recycle. He burned stuff  on a vast pyre at the bottom of the garden, creating a cloud of pollutants large enough to swamp Shropshire, returning hours later, satisfyingly begrimed, with a healthy odour of hard outdoor work about him. The closest he came to recycling was the maintenance of a compost heap. It has been said – with good reason – that the less educated don’t recycle, either because they can’t be bothered to put the soda can in the pretty green bin rather than the grubby brown one, or whatever, or they forget which is which because vandals have torn off the labels, or perhaps the different coloured bins cost money which they don’t have. Vapid, shallow and irreflective? Possibly. Lacking in public spirit? Probably. It doesn’t often cross people’s minds that entropy always increases and there’s a thermodynamic inevitability about recycled material that it’s going to cost more than you think it does to retrieve the original material in usable form.  Electricity, generated from oil, gas or nuclear material is needed to manage and drive recycling processes and joules are expensive.
There’s another agenda. Recycling of cross-species animal feeds accumulates what is rather grandly called ‘biomagnifying toxins’ in the food chain, as well as pathogens causing bizarre diseases like CJD and possibly the emergence of other toxic or infective organisms resistant to recycling chemistry.
As a teacher I am supposed to care about recycling. I wondered therefore, neglecting for a moment the small forest I annually sacrifice in print and photocopy, mostly filled with rubbish which students scrawl on, are the tools of my trade ‘green’? Is it better to write with white chalk on a blackboard or to use dry-erase markers on a whiteboard, I wonder? A possible and quite persuasive argument can be found on this site. Interested persons can squander a few more joules by clicking on it.
In this country, recycling means dropping something on the floor for some poverty-stricken immigrant to sweep it up after you and put it in a bin, where squadrons more of his countrymen take it away and process it. Old Mr Cynical, or what….