(or “Everybody Needs a Hobby”)
There is more than one way for a cat to be skinned
Indeed, twenty-six methods in all
With a further sixteen
For the overly keen
Though their details I strain to recall
There are seven techniques for beheading a horse
But the principle doesn’t much vary
It depends on the weight
And the type of its gait
And if short or remarkably hairy
When shivving a panda, one’s spoilt for choice
The variety beggars belief
Though I’ll keep this succinct:
They are almost extinct
So your time to enjoy them is brief
To dropkick koalas or beavers or stoats
Is a blissfully simple affair
If especially deft
Take a punt with the left
Or the right for more time in the air
On the number of ways to asphyxiate ducks
I count seventeen at time of writing
When garotting a swan
The whole challenge is gone
Since their necks are so long and inviting
To electrocute leopards or waterboard snakes
Is so painfully dull it’s untrue
For they modestly rate
In my quest to locate
The most versatile beast in the zoo
Have you ever wondered about that? Why, when appraising people’s capacity for extreme villainy, or disavowing our own, do we use axe-murder as a catch-all term?
Is axe-murder a particularly horrible form of murder? I’d certainly prefer it to being killed by any number of other esoteric tools. An implement more well-suited to the task, like a machete, strikes me as a lot more brutal; whereas something particularly unsuited to the task, like a two-handed barrette file, must result in a murder so inefficient and laborious that it can’t be satisfying for either participant.
Could it be a generally more concerning form of murder? Well, not really. The overwhelming majority of murder weapons are knives in the UK and firearms in the US. You never hear anyone jokingly say they don’t intend to shiv you. No, there are countless other instruments of death we should be far more worried about.
You could say that it’s the specific nature of the implement that makes it so sinister. If you’re specifically an axe-murderer, shunning all other methods of doing people in, in favour of a relatively obscure piece of killing paraphernalia, that might suggest you’re particularly more horrible than a run-of-the-mill butcher-knife-murderer. Well, maybe, but given how uncommon axes are in this day and age, I’d rather murderers were axe-murderers. Better they require a cumbersome and hard-to-obtain object to do their killings than one which is ubiquitous.
The only explanation I can think of as to why we use axe-murderers in this fashion is because they’re so uncommon and aberrant. I mean, I know they’re axe-murderers and all, but since when has it been considered good form to pick on a minority? As a group, genuine axe-murderers must feel unduly singled out by this practice. Next time you refer to them, spare a thought for their feelings.
Favourer: There you go.
Favouree: Oh, thank you so much! Seriously, you have no idea how appreciative I am.
Favourer: Go on then.
Favourer: I don’t like my own ignorance. How appreciative are you?
Favourer: I’m not asking for recompense or anything. It was a gift from me to you. It cost me next to nothing but gave you great benefit. I just want to know how much.
Favourer: A few reasons actually. Firstly, although I’m an altruist, I’m not a perfect altruist. It gives me warm fuzzy feelings to help someone else. If I’ve no idea how appreciative you are, I have no idea how warm or fuzzy to feel. Secondly, although I’m not a perfect altruist, I do want to be an efficient altruist, so I’d like to know if the time I spent doing this kind act could be spent doing something better, or if I’m best spending more time doing this sort of kind act in future rather than another.
Favourer: Thirdly, if this is a common class of problem, I might be able to come up with a global solution to it for all the people who ever experience it, and knowing how much it benefits you will help me figure out if it’s a viable social or commercial enterprise.
Favouree: I thought you said you didn’t want recompense.
Favourer: Well, not for this individual act, no, but that doesn’t oblige me to go out of my way to do the same favour for everyone who needs it. It might not be worth me doing it for everyone. Alternatively, it might be comparatively simple to do it for everyone if they subsidise me an amount less than it’s worth to them, which is why I need the information from you.
Favouree: Look, I’m just going to…
Favourer: Fourthly, I’m curious to see whether placing an explicit value on a favour devalues it in the eyes of the recipient. You were extremely thankful a moment ago when you didn’t have to think just how thankful you were. I’m curious to know whether asking you to value it, even though I’m not asking you for that value, sours you to the original act.
Favouree: You know, I think it might do.
Favourer: I think so too, even though you’ve basically got something for free, and we’re both essentially happy with that. Isn’t that a bit weird?
Favouree: Yeah, something’s definitely a bit weird.
Favourer: The favour is essentially something for nothing, but now you’re asked to volunteer its value, you’re probably starting to regret being that favour’s recipient, right?
Favouree: Very astute of you.
Favourer: The only satisfactory explanation I can come up with is that the information of how much the favour is worth to you is, confusingly, worth more than the favour itself, even though I’ve explicitly told you I don’t want recompense for it.
Favouree: Well, can you do me another favour? And I’ll tell you exactly how much I appreciate it.
Favourer: Go on…
Favouree: Here’s a fiver. Fuck off.
I’ve become one of those people who get enraged about what they see on TV, and then complain to Ofcom and the broadcaster.
I have seen the Banzai Christmas Special. I’ve watched a couple of episodes of Dirty Sanchez late of an evening when I couldn’t sleep. In my teens, before the prevalence of the internet, I even watched a bit of Eurotrash. I tell you this to establish my credentials in having sampled some pretty stupid television aired on Channel 4. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the sheer catastrophic idiocy that was The Execution of Gary Glitter.
I’m going to say that title again: The Execution of Gary Glitter. A fictional documentary-style account of what might have happened if UK law were implausibly modified to allow Gary Glitter (real name Paul Gadd) to be executed, ostensibly for sex crimes committed in another country but essentially for the crime of being Gary Glitter.
I have two major issues with The Execution of Gary Glitter, upon which I will now expound for your delight and convenience.
My first issue is that The Execution of Gary Glitter ghoulishly constructs a completely imaginary framework in which a real living person can be fictionally tried, convicted and executed for committing a hideous crime in a way that the real world simply won’t support. Under normal circumstances this would be considered defamation of character. The fact that Gary Glitter is an international multiply-convicted sex offender doesn’t leave him with a lot of character left to defame, but that doesn’t excuse the practise.
This would be just about excusable if The Execution of Gary Glitter were presented as a piece of satire, which has an implicit agreement with the audience that it is distorting fact to a ridiculous degree for entertainment purposes. The Execution of Gary Glitter, however, is not satire. The Execution of Gary Glitter presents itself as a serious, thought-provoking, counterfactual look at how we view the death penalty and sex crimes through the medium of Gary Glitter. In doing so, it lends itself an air of credibility which it simply cannot substantiate.
This brings me on to my second major issue with The Execution of Gary Glitter. Sex crimes (especially those dealing with minors) and the death penalty are sensitive subjects with complex social and legal consequences, which deserve to be aired, discussed, debated and explored in a forum respectful of this sensitivity and complexity. The Execution of Gary Glitter is not such a forum, and in trivialising such subjects it stunts public discourse around them.
I believe that The Execution of Gary Glitter serves to promote public misunderstanding of these issues, primarily by being absurd. There’s no more adequate a word to describe The Execution of Gary Glitter. It is an absurd premise, underpinned by absurd contrivances in an absurd hypothetical situation. There are reasons why we can’t hang Gary Glitter, but rather than explore these reasons, The Execution of Gary Glitter simply ignores them for the sake of perverse fantasy wish fulfillment.
Mr. Own Devices
There was once a venerable lady of my acquaintance, and one day she took it upon herself to ingest a fly. I’m sure she had her reasons, but whatever those reasons were, she took them to her grave.
What struck me most following this event was the sheer ghoulish conjecture over whether or not she would die as a result of simply having swallowed an insect. I have no doubt this contributed to the maddening compulsion that would eventually overtake her. If she’d left it there I’m sure she would still be with us today, but the speculation over her physical disposition clearly had a pervasive effect on her sense of wellbeing.
What drives people to cyclical self-destructive behaviour? I certainly can’t claim to be an expert. The human brain is a wonderful and terrifying construct, fraught with valuable processes that can do great harm in the wrong context. A logical and internally-consistent idea, left unchecked, can rapidly expand beyond our ability to mediate it. I believe this was at the root of the distressing events which overtook her, but for a clearer account you may want to consult a professional in the field of mental health.
Ostensibly, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, although it must have been clear to her that the fly was long-digested. In reality, I suspect she swallowed the spider in an effort to banish the notion of having swallowed the fly, along with the corresponding aspersions of her possible death. It might not make sense to you or me from our vantage point of comparative sanity, but such is the horror of having one’s faculties compromised. Even a live spider isn’t a particularly hazardous object to swallow, but I for one would certainly find it more of a harrowing prospect than swallowing a fly.
Millions of years of evolution have led our species to an innate fear of crawling creatures with many legs, and in this light it’s hardly surprising that she began reporting feelings of “wriggling” in her stomach, even days after swallowing it. By this point she was certainly not looking in the best of health, but rather than propose a psychological cause, a common reaction was tho chalk it down to what she’d been eating. Please let me remind you, at this point she’d only swallowed a fly and a spider. The public grasp of dietary issues, informed as they are by celebrity magazines and attrocious TV shows, is appaling. The notion she might die from having simply eaten a live fly and a live spider is frankly ridiculous, but this didn’t stop people from feeding her paranoia with such fantasist health advice.
I can’t help but admire the rigor with which she pursued the line of reasoning she did, but I still regret not cottoning on once she bought the canary. Admittedly, it’s small enough to squeeze down a well-lubricated oesophagus, but canaries don’t even eat spiders. I’m sure in the event of a canary having nothing to eat but spiders, it would probably go for one. This presumably still holds for phantasmal canaries with nothing to eat but the ghosts of once-swallowed spiders that haunt your stomach. The neatness of the absurdity is apparent, and is one of the things that make mental illness such a fascinating yet tragic field of study.
I wish at the time I’d have said something, but how do you phrase a request like that? “Stop swallowing a hierarchical menagerie of animals” just doesn’t seem adequate. As things progressed, both social services and the RSPCA got involved, but when someone’s in the grip of an obsession there’s not a great deal you can do. In her desperation, even the internal consistency of her delusions started to break down. After all, dogs don’t actually eat cats, and goats certainly don’t eat dogs. What was she expecting them to do?
I’m guessing the futility of introducing a herbivore as a natural predator in an ecosystem was probably the least of her worries towards the end. Given that we were dealing with a woman with a compulsion to swallow a series of larger and larger live animals, we probably shouldn’t focus on the smaller ridiculous details. Still, you’d think she’d have attempted a pony or something, rather than an adult warmblood; it’s not the biggest she could have gone for, but it’s certainly not the smallest.
She’s dead, of course.
Assuming you could count at a rate of three numbers a second and didn’t need to sleep, it would take ten years, six months, 25 days, four hours and 48 minutes to count to a billion. On this basis, counting 96 billion lots of eight would take 8110 years, 28 days, nineteen hours and twelve minutes.
I’m calculating this to teach myself a little humility. I am currently configuring the most badass set of servers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. My only gripe with them is that they take about four and a half minutes to carry out their 96GB memory check, and I have to spend this time staring at a blank screen, and if I don’t pay attention I’ll miss the BIOS configuration option.
Four and a half minutes staring at a blank screen seems like an annoying amount of time, but compared to how long it would take me to manually count up 768 billion bits, it doesn’t seem so long. We have fourteen of them, so I’d be finished by the year 115550. 115551 if I stop for a break half way.
Computers are both awesome and terrifying.
The difference between Windows and Linux is the difference between an immaculately-dressed prude and an enthusiastic unabashed nudist.
The immaculately-dressed prude always looks quite good, and usually does what you request, but ask to see its process stack and it’ll slap you in the face. If you buy it a nice meal, and tell it that you love it, it’ll probably let you rummage around under its clothes for a bit, but it’ll complain the whole time, which really kills the mood.
The enthusiastic nudist, on the other hand, will happily show you its process stack, and its TCP/IP sockets. It’ll also tell you all about them, exactly how big they are, how well they perform and what all its friends think about them. The first time you meet it, you don’t know where to look, but you eventually get used to it, and it’s quite fun to romp around with it in the nude. Still, you couldn’t introduce it to your mother, and sometimes you just want to tell it to put some bloody clothes on.
Meanwhile, you’re contacted by your prudish ex-OS, which has started to get over its hang-ups. It’s still immaculately dressed, which is nice, but it’s also started taking blurry pictures of its private parts on its camera phone and sending them to you. That’s as far as it goes, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and at least you can take it out in public.
Jealous of the renewed attention you’re now lavishing on the prudish part-time exhibitionist, your nudist bedfellow makes itself some clothes and starts taking elecution lessons. It looks and sounds…well, quite good actually, but it acts awkwardly, like it doesn’t want to be wearing anything. In the end, the only way you can sensibly interact with it is to get it to take its top off, which it does gladly.
You’re faced with the choice between a prude that wants to endlessly tease you and a nudist that can’t decide which clothes it doesn’t want to wear. Your only alternative is Mac OS, a visitor from beyond the stars. It claims to be a nudist, but can’t survive in Earth’s atmosphere, so it spends all its time in a hermetically sealed exoskeleton and you don’t even know what it looks like.
So those are your options: shirts, skins or alien exoskeleton.
Do you know what a bilabial oral plosive is? Say it out loud, quietly if you’re in company. Bilabial oral plosive. By-LAY-bee-ul. Oral plosive. If you didn’t know what it was before, chances are by now you probably want to.
Well, it’s actually a category of phoneme produced by expelling air forcefully through the mouth in a manner that involves both lips, such as a b or p sound. Not filthy in the slightest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair few linguistics students had their interest in the subject piqued by rude-sounding terminology.
Compare this to logical fallacies, which have rubbish-sounding Latin names that aren’t even remotely suggestive. Do you know what post hoc ergo propter hoc is? There’s no reason why you should unless you’re a Roman Legionary, and a posh Roman Legionary at that. It’s a fallacy of circumstantial causality. “I went canoeing and the day after I was diagnosed with diabetes. Clearly canoes cause diabetes.” Event 1 preceeded Event 2, therefore Event 1 must have caused Event 2. It seems obviously fallacious in the context of that example, but it’s a very common cognitive error.
There’s something a bit worrying about this disparity. Unless you have some pressing need to apply a global set of pronunciation standards, you are never going to need to know what a bilabial oral plosive is. On the other hand, you’re probably going to assume false circumstantial causality at least a dozen times before the end of the day. Knowing what our phonemes are called will probably not help us talk better, but knowing the terminology for common mistakes our brains are prone to make will help us think better.
The world is a distressingly complex place for walking talking monkeys like you and me to make sense of, so instead our brains make as many assumptions about it as they think they can get away with. Most of these assumptions were fine 80,000 years ago, but in a world squeezed full of digital communication, evidence-based medicine, mass-transit, mechanised infrastructure, politics, economics, engineering, urbanised society and a dizzying crapload of other complicated phenomena, these assumptions are often very wrong. It’s when our brains inappropriately make these assumptions that fallacies creep in, like mischievous imps, to play cruel games with our ability to reason properly.
It’s not easy to make logic sexy. T’Pol from Star Trek: Enterprise was a good effort, but she ultimately spent far too much time rubbing herself with detox gel and not enough deconstructing the validity of a priori propositions. There are other angles we can approach it from, though. I can’t help but feel a lot of the PR problems encountered by reason and critical thinking stem from the use of so much Latin terminology. It makes the subject seem elitist, when at its heart it’s a set of ideas for addressing thinking problems endemic to the whole of humanity. We should be taught this stuff as children, but the way it’s packaged makes it inaccessible to anyone but enthusiasts, obnoxious internet users and aforementioned posh Roman Legionaries.
Maybe we can’t make logic sexy, but what if we can make it smutty? What if post hoc ergo propter hoc were known as the Massive Balls Fallacy, with an example about a man who erroneously thinks the use of heavy bowling balls improves his performance? We’d all remember that one, wouldn’t we? Let’s teach them as innocuous double-entendres to unsuspecting seven-year-olds, and as they grow up it’ll cement itself into their brains. Simple parables illustrating critical thinking will be immortalised into adulthood as knob gags and risqué puns, celebrated across all educational backgrounds for generations to come.
If I could go down in history for one thing, I think promoting the discipline of logical reasoning by teaching kids smutty playground rhymes would be my number one choice.
Some time ago, whilst watching UKTV Gold, I made a wish upon a star for the BBC to make more Jonathan Creek. It’s an odd TV show, because no matter how good any given episode is, it has severely limited repeat viewing value. The earliest episodes are over ten years old, and even though I can now, in my mature and wizened state, appreciate them as good television, whilst simultaneously laughing at the sartorial follies of the 1990s, I still know how they’re done. There is no mental money shot.
You could make this claim for all mystery fiction bar Columbo, but I would argue that the locked room mystery subgenre suffers more from this than its less nerdy brethren. A puzzle is implicitly involved. The emphasis is on the howdunnit as much as the whodunnit, and picking apart an open problem for which there is no apparent rational explanation is what makes it so satisfying, like untying a particularly stubborn knot which seems to defy Euclidean geometry.
As you may have gathered by now, I quite like Jonathan Creek, although even I will admit it was limping along by its fourth season, in part because Julia Sawalha’s character didn’t fit into the show’s premise as well as Caroline Quentin’s, and in part because the series was just getting a bit tired and emotional. When I first got cable TV, in amongst the sea of reruns I was occasionally pleasantly surprised to stumble across an episode I hadn’t seen before, but this event became more and more rare as time went on. Eventually I resigned myself to the depressing fact that watching it would forever be nothing other than mental masturbation without climax, and the frustration of this led me to change the channel in disgust whenever I caught a glimpse of a familiar scene. It was at this point that I made my wish.
Anyway, last night my wish came true. A brand new, one-off, feature length Jonathan Creek Christmas Special, The Grinning Man, written by the show’s original creator David Renwick. OK, so it didn’t have Caroline Quentin in it, but it didn’t have Julia Sawalha in it either, so it could go either way. I watched it, and it was…alright, actually. A literal locked-room mystery, with a nice grim tone set straight from the start. The blonde from Two Pints of Lager… can deliver good dialogue as well as needless fishwife-screeching, and her character actually works as a gobby know-it-all foil against our titular protagonist.
It was far from perfect. For a start, it was two hours long on the BBC, with work the morning after. I’m not sure they could have trimmed it down to the magical 90 minute mark, but by 1h45 it was starting to groan a bit. Also, I figured out about 60% of the salient mystery elements long before they were revealed in-show. I’d love to claim my powers of deduction were responsible for this, but it was mostly down to televisual mystery storytelling convention. When the camera lingers unnecessarily over a seemingly irrelevant object in the first ten minutes of the episode, it might as well flash up an enormous neon sign reading “PLOT DEVICE”. This isn’t necessarily the TV show’s fault, but there’s only so much fourth-wall etiquette the viewer can apply without resorting to outright delusion.
Still, it was a force for good over a season of ambiguous Christmas television. There’s no word of a new series, and that might be for the best. All the obvious quality material was consumed early on in the show’s history, and I’d much rather leave it where it is, with the hope of future one-off specials produced over a long, quality-assuring gestation period.
There are two fundamental rules when performing magic: never tell them how it’s done, and never repeat the same trick twice. Jonathan Creek breaks the first rule as a matter of course, and when it comes to the second rule, some tricks are simply unrepeatable. If the BBC and The Honourable Mister Renwick wish to prove me wrong, they’re quite welcome to try.
You know when you go and see an animated film about a talking mouse, primarily to appease the animated mouse-loving part of your girlfriend’s brain, expecting it to be poorly-conceived and childish schlock but walking away having seen one of the most refreshing pieces of cinema in recent memory? You know that experience? No? Then go and see The Tale of Despereaux. Oh, and get a girlfriend. Especially if you’re a girl yourself, then film your experiences and send them to me.
Had I not been gently strong-armed into seeing this film, it would have completely passed me by. It would have sailed into the part of my brain that serves as a graveyard for probably-rubbish unwatched movies, alongside Herbie: Fully Loaded, or Stealth, or all those other films I haven’t bothered to watch and probably never will. If it had made this journey, my life would be a little less rich, and I wouldn’t even know it.
Where to begin? A talking mouse probably strikes you as a little unimaginative, but how about a city whose culture, economy and wellbeing revolves entirely around soup? Or a magic cookbook which summons a French chef made from fruits, vegetables and kitchenware? Or two distinct rodent civilisations put across with surprising depth for the small amount of screentime they’re actually given? It’s based on a book, entitled The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. Having received somewhere just shy of about a million books this Christmas, I might have to put a pause on working my way through the pile so I can find a copy, and give it the attention it clearly deserves.
As well as a series of highly expressive characters, human and vermin alike, voiced by a cast of diverse yet familiar actors, the film has a surprisingly complex plot, which it nonetheless manages to weave and present in a very fluent and well-paced manner. It’s bolted together from standardised storybook components such as daring heroes, lonely princesses and bitter underlings (it is a children’s film, after all), but they’re pieced side by side in such a polished and minimalist way that every bit of it seems to be pulling its weight. There’s no gratuitous fat to trim from it. The narrative has nothing but what it needs in order to work, but it really does work.
Unlike a lot of contemporary animated films, it’s very sparse on the humour. It does have its moments, but it’s not played for laughs. There’s an actual story it’s trying to deliver, and that story is well-told, maturely developed and surprisingly charming. Remember charm? That thing we used to be charmed by, before ironic and edgy humour corroded our hearts into post-modern gag-processing machines.
I do worry this film will slip by unnoticed, into the probably-rubbish mental graveyards of so many people who would otherwise enjoy it enormously. It is a genuine worry I possess, because it deserves to be seen and enjoyed, and if you’re inclined towards being charmed by something unexpectedly good, you deserve to see and enjoy it. Please do.