Saturday, December 22

....back from skiing, and it was good. Not wonderful, due to a serious lack of snow, but there were some runs open and it's always good to be up the mountain and doing some skiing.

This is now most of my holiday over, as I have lots of work do to over the next few weeks, but I won't really start on it for another few days. Time for bed right now....
posted @ 3:17 PM -

Friday, December 14

wow! That open letter came to 1,000 words in the end. An essay that may never end up being shown to anyone but a few close colleagues.... Or may end up kicking up a serious storm across the campus of 10,000 students....

Anyway, time for bed. In a very few hours I'll be off skiing. I'll be back in 8 days, and I'm sure I won't miss my computer enough to seek out a web cafe in Tignes.
posted @ 6:22 PM -
aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!!! I spent far too long (5 hours) today at a University Senate meeting, in which my concerns that students are not being consulted were simply brushed aside. What students are not being consulted about is about as important as issues get - a total reorganisation of the University, in which much that is distinctive and good about the place will be lost.

I've spent the past hour and a half writing an open letter to the Vice Chancellor. It's a draft, and I won't decide what to do with it for a week, but I hope you can understand my lack of eagerness to write the same things out again, and my not considering it wise to publish bits of the actual letter. I'm off to bed now, not a happy man at all, partly because the whole business stinks to high heaven, and partly because I have a strong personal stake in this. I had thought I might well do a PhD in a department which I now know will no longer exist in 3 years' time. The best laid plans of mice and men....
posted @ 6:11 PM -

Thursday, December 13

I've just seen an Indian comedian coming up with a nice response to the racists' accusation that asians are taking over the country: "You British took over all of India... Bombay... Darjeeling... the Taj Mahal. We're taking our revenge by conquering... [long pause] Luton".
posted @ 3:35 PM -
I sort of accept the criticism that I spend too much time criticising America, considering that I am neither a citizen of nor resident in that country. However, the closeness with which my adopted homeland follows America in almost every respect makes events there hugely important to me.

I am very deeply disturbed by the way that America, a land of immigrants (whose real original residents are confined to reservations), is treating its newer arrivals. As this highly worrying report shows, hundreds of people are being imprisoned indefinitely without charge, simply for being Muslims or from the Middle East (including, ironically, some Israelis).

I am a Jew, born in Turkey, and without British nationality. My flatmate is a more recent immigrant from Greece, a country which is home to a rabid group anti-NATO terrorists, and has failed to arrest any of them. Neither of us actually have anything to hide, but looking at the pattern of detentions in America that seems to be no protection. Right now I am very grateful that when my parents moved to the West they chose Britain and not America, even though there were lots of good reasons to go to America (honestly, I don't hate the place - there really are lots of good reasons to move there, and all the more so if you are leaving a poor and [worse then than now] politically unstable country). Unfortunately, we are following America in this respect - David "can I bear your children, Mr. Ashcroft?" Blunkett is pushing through legislation that will allow unlimited detention without charge or trial for people that he decides are suspects. The House of Lords, who are occasionally very sensible in spite of their complete irrelevance to democracy, have weakened the law somewhat, but the detention without charge or trial bit is still there. In theory this power is to detain 20 or so serious suspects of terrorism or incitement to terrorism, but the experience in America shows that once the powers are granted there is a danger of any foreigner being targeted.

I'm not seriously all that worried - I do still think that the judiciary and security services here are more restrained, more respectful of human rights, and more generally sensible than in America, plus I actually fit in as a local and people tend to assume I'm British - but we shouldn't have to take these things on faith. A supposed democracy ought to guarantee the rights of anybody in the country, not just leave us hoping that no-one will point a finger at us even without just cause.
posted @ 3:28 PM -
well well well... So they have released the video after all, and it looks like it is the smoking gun it's been hyped as. It's a pretty disturbing show of fanaticism, and the full transcript (the translation's been checked out by some academics, and the arabic is audible on the tape, so I think the translation must be real, if only because they wouldn't get away with a fake) is available online courtesy of the US Defence Department. I still don't quite understand why this would have been taped, but unless this is a hoax, which I don't think is likely, our man has handed the US government proof of his guilt and a fantastic piece of PR.
posted @ 1:52 PM -
Just got a package through the post that made me smile, lots. My Secret Santa's (actually secret, because I've only just realised that my gift giver is not the same person I'm sending a gift to) present has just arrived - the book of series 2 of Simon Schama's A History of Britain.

I hope you're reading this, secret Santa, because you have not only spent more than was suggested, which is awfully nice in itself, but also managed to choose by far the best thing on my wish list. Cheers!
posted @ 5:32 AM -
woohoo! I'm going skiing on Saturday!

Not much to say about it except that I'm looking forward to it lots and I haven't mentioned it recently.
posted @ 2:39 AM -

Wednesday, December 12

Most people I speak to seem to be hugely excited about all things Harry Potter. I'm not, not because I dislike the books or film, but simply because I haven't got around to reading or watching any of them. One day I probably will, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

Meanwhile, the Lord of the Rings films are getting me excited in the same way as Harry Potter does for everyone else, helped all the more by the extremely favourable reviews it's getting. I'm still a tad skeptical about how each of the books can be compressed into a few hours of film, but I'm looking forward to finding out.
posted @ 6:03 AM -
Something else worth honouring: today is the centenary of the first trans-atlantic radio signal. I really don't need to spell out the importance of that technology do I? What is striking though is that I always imagined radio to have been around for far longer than it actually has been; somehow it feels like it ought to predate the car and airplane by many decades, and yet these inventions were all fairly close to each other.
posted @ 5:47 AM -
Ellen MacArthur MBE

She's my age, and yet she's also one of the most worthy MBEs I've seen. She's achieved absolutely amazing things already, done a lot to get more people interested in sailing as a sport, and the humility with which she accepted the award for solo sailing achievements but insisted on crediting a number of people as well is characteristic. I also can't see her ever stopping.
posted @ 5:39 AM -
So what's this all about then? The US govt have a videotape that supposedly amounts to "smoking gun" evidence that they are after the right man, but they're not sure if they want to release it to the public.

This doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Is it going to be one of these things like the list of evidence the British govt released, which on the surface and in the hype looks damning and on examination turns out not to mean a great deal? Have they not only reversed the usual "innocent until proven guilty" principle, but also conducted a whole war on the basis of a presumption of guilt? If you're so damn sure you're after the right people, come out and show us the proof. Otherwise the whole campaign has no legitimacy whatsoever.
posted @ 5:33 AM -
Suddenly I want to be a US Marine, just so I can have what they're having: some seriously good shit
posted @ 5:24 AM -
Some people are just born cursed by their unfortunate names. The latest one to come to my attention is the incoming head of the Russian Jewish Congress: Yevgenii Satanovskii, a surname which apparently can be translated as "son of satan".
posted @ 5:13 AM -

Tuesday, December 11

Quote of the day: It never occurred to Frank and Marilyn that their son would become a holy warrior. From Newsweek's article about why John Walker joined the Taliban.

Seriously though, the article also mentions that his sister and mother are in hiding after they received death threats. This is a very sad reflection on society - in a country which is generally more individualistic than any other, people are still holding this guy's poor parents responsible for his actions. I also find it highly amusing that his parents are talking about brainwashing.... Why is it that whenever peoples' children start to believe things alien to them they speak of brainwashing? Is it not possible that people might actually convince themselves of these things?
posted @ 12:14 PM -
Another cool science story, this time about research into disease prevention without antibiotics.

There's also a lesson here which I think the world needs to learn: genetics researchers are not evil Frankstein types lusting over money and cavorting with evil corporations. I know it's partly a matter of scientists presenting themselves badly, but I am sick and tired of the public perception that science is bad or scary.
posted @ 9:38 AM -
Honestly. Brain the size of a UN Secretary General and you expect me to work with muppets?

thanks Blather for the link
posted @ 7:12 AM -
I've just sent my Secret Santa his christmas present. He might be reading this page, so I really can't say what the present was, but it was something I also like, which is always nice.

Anyway, one of the things that happens with Secret Santa is that you are sent your not-so-Secret Santa's URL, and I've found myself wanting to rip off lots of his stories. Instead I think it's much fairer to link to his page
posted @ 6:39 AM -
Two very cool new science stories:

Evidence that there may be life on one of Jupiter's moons

An explanation of the aurora borealis
posted @ 6:29 AM -
Having recently been utterly scathing about the fuss over human cloning (here and here), I feel like drawing attention to the sort of medical innovation that I think is genuinely worth serious ethical debate. Doctors want to be able to use 'designer babies' to treat ill siblings.

I'm really not too sure where I stand on this one - is it a wonderful thing because it will make some diseases curable, or a terrible thing because it implies children becoming sort of livestock, bred for their usefulness to their siblings? What do you think?
posted @ 6:19 AM -
There may be something reflexively upsetting about the fact that they are unelected and unrepresentative, but sometimes their lack of vulnerability to public opinion allows the House of Lords to shoot down stupid legislation that otherwise would pass. Last week they defeated David Blunkett's megalomaniac anti-terrorism bill, and it now looks like he may have to remove some of the most objectionable parts before it becomes law. Of course the Labour Party presented all of this to the news as though the Lords had endangered everybody's safety by not giving free rein to the Home Secretary's tyranny, but then they would say that wouldn't they....

I guess I should still be glad I'm on the right side of the pond though - at least the bill here has a sensible name and not one that is picked purely so it spells P.A.T.R.I.O.T.
posted @ 5:46 AM -
What could convince anybody that single-faith schools are a good idea? At a time when race relations are a serious social issue in Britain the Government seem hell-bent on establishing more single-faith schools in spite of the clamour of voices against them, because they tend to do marginally better in exam league tables.

We need more mixing of communities and ethnic groups in this country (and in any country that has immigration), not less. Now a report into the race riots earlier this year has come out, and it stresses precisely this point, but I'll be willing to bet money that the next statement from the Education department still supports single-faith schools.
posted @ 5:38 AM -

Monday, December 10

so.... it's not only not OK to wave a Taiwan flag in China, but also at any event that China holds any influence over. And they've got the events to basically police themselves because the organisers are so afraid of the wrath of Jiang.

The hypocrisy of a world that claims to support self-determination for nations but just drops it if trade with the dominator power is too valuable never ceases to amaze me.
posted @ 4:32 AM -

Sunday, December 9

AlterNet are carrying a very good short piece by a young Israeli writer about how each group in the conflict there are convinced that no-one else could possibly understand their problems. I don't know if it's really the heart of the problem, but it certainly goes a long way towards explaining why neither side wants to listen to foreign advice or arm-twisting.
posted @ 8:15 AM -
speaking of football and silliness, I'm watching another FA Cup match on TV at the moment, at Canvey Island, who are a non-League side who play by the sea on a pitch below sea level, and some of the home fans have a big flag with "Bucket and Spade FC" written across it. There's not many people in football who are unable to laugh at themselves, and those few tend to be reviled by the rest....
posted @ 4:59 AM -
I went to my first football match in ages yesterday, and it was glorious. The play wasn't great, we won but in the first half we didn't look the better side, and even in the second half when we got our act together we still gave the opposition too many breaks and chances. I also thought the referee was terrible, but my neutral friend who watched it on TV disagreed, and it's so hard to be objective when you're there and you care who wins that I'll take it his word for it. What was glorious was the atmosphere - 90 minutes of a big party with lots of grown men (and a scattering of women, but it's far from gender balanced unfortunately) being extremely loud and extremely childish, in spite of only about 30 minutes of that time rewarding us with attractive football.

I was beginning to lose interest in football, having not seen any live for so long, but this was a very welcome reminder of what's so great about that ridiculous game.
posted @ 4:50 AM -
ahhh... how sweet. Osama Bin Laden's mother is just like anyone else's would be, only possibly milder - "disappointed" but "not angry with him".
posted @ 4:38 AM -
Latvia is the latest European country to be discussing a tricky moral issue - should people continue hunting Nazis and bringing them to justice, or should we accept that too much time has passed? I'm in two minds about this - on the one hand I like the idea that people who inflicted so much suffering can never rest, knowing that there are always people after them, but on the other I wonder if this is the best things for the victims, whose opinions surely should matter more than mine. There have definitely been some instances of elderly concentration camp survivors choosing not to testify against their oppressors, because they just don't want to relive what has become a distant buried part of their past.

What do you think?

And one more thing which the many people in this country who still have some sort of anti-German prejudice should note: the suspects in these cases have Latvian names. It's not that there's anything special about Latvia in this respect, it's just that in every country that was occupied by Nazis, Hitler found willing executioners from the local population as well as the cronies he imported - evil is not some specifically German disease, but common to all humanity.
posted @ 2:44 AM -

Friday, December 7

anthropology of the British pub
posted @ 3:12 PM -
I couldn't resist nicking one more link from Need To Know:

By mapping not only the Pacific Northwest, but wooded and non-wooded areas across the entire planet, YETI@Home will be the largest completely unscientific study of nonexistent phenomenon to date.
posted @ 2:14 PM -
...and if someone could tell me what the headline, picture and story here have to do with each other I'd be most grateful.

[this and the previous item courtesy of Need To Know]
posted @ 2:02 PM -
Don't ask me what this is all about. I don't have a clue
posted @ 2:00 PM -
So, why exactly are drugs illegal?

This is on my mind because I've been reading an article about the widely held false belief that licking Bufo toads gets you high (it does nothing, unless you lick an absurd number of toads, in which case it poisons you). In the minor moral panic in the US legislature about this, the criterion for whether to make posession of said toads illegal was not whether there was harm associated with toad-licking, nor whether it was dependency-inducing, but simply whether or not it gets the licker high.

This sounds to me suspiciously like a case of banning something because people enjoy it.
posted @ 10:01 AM -
It's quite amazing how much time I've ended up losing to a combination of needing to sort my computer out and being unable to resist tinkering more than is strictly necessary. Sorry I've been a bit patchy in my updates here, but when time starts to run short this isn't my top priority....
posted @ 4:23 AM -

Tuesday, December 4

I have a new flatmate. Greek guy called Marcos, who'll be moving in this week. What is far more interesting is that he works as a croupier in the local casino. I have a bit of a thing about poker, and I'm sure he must have dealt to some of my friends (I've not made it to the casino yet, but there are cheap games every week so I keep meaning to). Maybe he can teach me a thing or two.

The process of looking for a flatmate has been an interesting one. Like last time, far more foreign people than Brits phoned about the room, and the majority of the Brits who did were not from this area. This time has been a bit different though, in that very few people actually came round, even though many made appointments; very frustrating. In fact the only British person who actually did look at the house was gay; it's almost as if there's something about this place that repels 'conventional' types....

I found the way in which some people presented themselves depressing, because they seemed ashamed of things that they shouldn't have to be ashamed of, actually things which to my mind made them more interesting. The gay guy asked when he first phoned up whether his being gay was a problem - I could only answer "I'm not, is that a problem?", because it took me a while to realise that he had a good reason to ask - it could save him a lot of aggravation with looking round houses that will never accept him (he is very camp, so there's no chance of hiding it once he meets people, and why should he have to anyway). I also showed round a Libyan woman, who was very cagey about where she came from, generally just referring to "my country" without the name, and seeming uncomfortable when I asked. Once again it took me a while to realise that she was probably being sensible - if you can get to know someone before they find out where you are from, they are less likely to judge you by it, and especially in the current climate Arabs are getting a hard time....

I wish I lived in a world where people would advertise these things about themselves: "look at me, I have a different way of life from yours, this makes me an interesting person to live with". And the lion shall lay with the lamb....
posted @ 6:08 PM -
Secret Santa is a really sweet idea - on the 10th of December it will pick one partner for each member and send them a wishlist, so each member gets to exchange presents of similar value with a stranger. Rationally I am well aware that I could just buy myself one of my desired CDs or books, but somehow this is a nicer way of doing it....
posted @ 5:56 PM -

Monday, December 3

my computer decided yesterday morning it was going to go on strike. At least when human workers do this they have demands which the employer could potentially meet and negotiation is an option. My computer hasn't given me these options so it is being replaced. I may not have much to say until I get the new system properly up and running, which is as much fun as ever....
posted @ 8:31 AM -
a slightly less serious look at cloning
posted @ 8:30 AM -

Saturday, December 1

and the number of casualties is rising
posted @ 6:37 PM -
I am no fan of the Israeli government, but none of their sins justify this
posted @ 6:32 PM -
I've just stumbled across a site by a rather cool artist: Eddie Breen
posted @ 6:25 PM -
For over a year now I have been living with a chronic illness. It's actually far less dramatic and horrible than that makes it sound (please don't confuse "chronic" illnesses with "terminal" ones - only extremely stupid mismanagement could make my condition terminal), but it can be mighty annoying at times.

I'm guessing you don't want to read the details (I have no qualms about publishing them if people do, but they are more unpleasant than they are interesting unless you happen to be a doctor), but basically I have colitis, which is a disease so poorly understood by Western medicine that the name just describes the symptom - inflammation of the colon. Symptoms range from none at all (for 5 or 6 months this year I had no trouble and though that therefore I was cured) to diarrhoea so bad I am virtually chained to the toilet. When it gets bad this causes a few knock-on effects - I stop wanting to go out (for fear of being caught short), it's really hard to do anything because whatever I try to do is interrupted so often, and I start to badly lose energy because my digestive tract basically loses its ability to use what's in food.

For the last week or so I have been particularly ill, in spite of the fact that I've been trying the treatment that seemed to sort out the last bout. This has also been getting me down badly, because I've been losing so much time when I ought to be doing quite a lot of work (I feel quite inspired by my course at the moment, and I've picked the projects I'll be handing in in January, so it's time to start properly working on them), and feeling pretty helpless. There's a condition known to psychologists as "learned helplessness", which is basically a type of depression that can be induced in most lab animals if they are punished randomly and arbitrarily, even if the punishment is not all that frequent. I was beginning to feel like that, because I was eating the right foods, taking the right medicines, and getting more ill.

My doctor is the most unreliable man in the world (claim not corroborrated with the Guinness Book of Records), but I stick with him because he was the one person who actually had a logical explanation of what was wrong with me and how to deal with it, and he was the only person whose treatment seemed to actually help me for more than a couple of weeks. Last week I got so fed up that I arranged appointments with a few other people; I'll still keep those and see what they can tell me. Meanwhile I did manage to make contact with my doctor, and he gave me quite a lot of new advice about managing the condition with diet and eating habits (most important thing being not to let myself get hungry). I wish I didn't have to wait till it got bad to get this sort of information, but anyway it has helped a great deal.

On Friday I wasn't exactly bursting with energy, but I had far less trouble getting out of bed, and during the day I was very highly productive, even reading academic papers while in a noisy common room and on a noisy train, and not just passively reading but actually having ideas stemming from them. Today I've not been on quite such good form, but I think that this is part of the story with my insomnia. The thing is that it's not the really horrible sort of insomnia that leaves me unable to sleep even though I feel groggy and tired; I actually feel quite alert and alive.

There's another useful psychology concept known as the "opponent process theory", which is an almost Daoist way of looking at neurotransmitters - after an excess of one mood or state of mind (as directly measured in terms of the opposing brain chemicals that are linked to these things), an excess of the other will follow, until finally the system settles into stable mediocrity. This is normally used to explain drug comedowns - after a drug-induced excess of serotonin (to simplify somewhat, serotonin can be considered the "happiness hormone"), as the drug wears off the result is an abnormal drop in serotonin secretion, hence the comedown. I think I may be experiencing the mirror image of this - after a serious dearth of energy (possibly also serotonin related) I'm now swinging to the opposite extreme.

Anyone who's spoken to me over the last couple of days will know that my symptoms have not gone away, but the knock-on effects seem to have done, and that is a vastly improved state of affairs.

I love being able to look at myself like this. Contrary to popular belief, having a psychology degree doesn't compel people to do this, but it does make it an option, and that makes me glad I studied that subject even though it has probably not advanced my career anywhere near as much as something like computer science might have done....
posted @ 6:15 PM -
posted @ 6:05 PM -
insomnia. Strange.... I haven't had this for years, and recently I've been on particularly low energy. Maybe all that annoying extra sleep I've been needing over the last few weeks has charged some huge internal battery and I'll be a productivity machine for the next couple of weeks. Or maybe I just think that because Finest Worksong is playing at the moment. Actually I do have a rational explanation, which will follow, with some background that might even make it make sense to other people.
posted @ 5:36 PM -
Today is World AIDS Day, and it seems worth playing my small part in raising awareness. This simply shouldn't be an issue these days - anyone within 10 years of my age has grown up with AIDS being relatively known about and through major awareness campaigns, but people seem to have forgotten. Rather than repeat myself I'll link to what I had to say about this earlier.

What I do want to add today is just briefly to celebrate some good work being done in my local area:

I'll start with what is really my community - the University. Part of Brighton Uni is across from the road from Sussex Uni, yet we rarely organise anything together. A rare exception is Unisex. It's a sexual health awareness project aimed at all students, but especially new arrivals. Unfortunately there's still such a stigma about sex education that plenty of people get to University not really understanding why they should do basic things like use condoms, and while most new students are not actually virgins, they tend to get far more promiscuous when they get here, so the message becomes all the more important.

Next up is a local charity that are important because of one of the peculiarities of Brighton. This place is known as the gay capital of Britain, and whether or not it has the biggest gay community in the country it certainly has a significant gay scene. An unfortunate side effect of this is that we also have a higher than average HIV infection rate, and Brighton Body Positive aim to help HIV positive people cope with their status. They are well respected both for supporting people through the stigma of being infected, and for directing people to complementary therapies that help them to deal with the nasty side effects of HIV drugs.

Finally a national organisation who have a particularly high profile locally because of one of the nasty things about Brighton. The city also has one of the highest (possibly the highest - I'm not sure) per capita heroin abuse rates in the country. Unfortunately the belief that zero tolerance is the way to deal with drugs is still widespread, but Addaction are one of many progressive charities who recognise that this is an unhelpful approach. No matter how harsh the law is, it won't stop people from taking drugs, but education can at least cut down addict numbers, and if people are addicted Addaction recognise that there are a lot of services that can still help them, rather than trying to sweep the problem under the carpet. By providing treatment and advice to drug addicts, they reduce the rate of drug-related crime (and one interesting thing about Brighton, where they are particularly active, is that the theft rate is among the lowest in the country even though drug addiction and theft usually correlate), and by providing education and needle exchanges they also reduce the spread of HIV in the population.

Health to their hands, as the Turks say.
posted @ 11:17 AM -
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