Friday, August 28, 2009

Raising Awareness

I hate this phrase. I was watching an interview with someone associated with the 'climate camp' thing earlier on and she used it about four times in one minute. The best part was when she said that their aim was to "raise awareness of climate change and what we, at climate camp, are doing about it".

Firstly, informing the public about climate change is a task better done by the scientists that have been studying it for decades, not a bunch of humanities students whose awareness of it consists of the knowledge that it is a 'bad thing'. When it is coopted into the agenda of a radical political movement, especially one that does very little to endear itself to the generally self-interested population, it makes the task harder for those politicians trying to achieve some sort of workable consensus on the issue. I think for a lot of people over here the 'climate camp' movement is like the cocky little kid who shouts "yeah, you fuckin' walk away!" moments after you've decided they aren't worth the trouble of a fight -- it brings out a contrarian streak that makes you do what you'd decided you didn't want to do. The lesson is that while this may give you a temporary feeling of satisfaction, you'll find yourself standing, sheepish and scared, in front of the headteacher soon enough.

The other thing is my continuing dislike of pointless gestures. One day I'll try and figure out the exact mental criteria I have for the boundary between protest, activism, and utterly pointless gestures, but for now I'll just note this rule -- If you say your intention is to Raise Awareness, then chances are that what you're doing is a pointless gesture.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


A 1934 BMW R7. I don't ride motorbikes, I can't even ride bicycles, but oh man. Want. It looks like it's going to pounce on something and eat it. It wasn't ever put into production because it was too complicated and expensive to produce, it was packed into a box and kept in a warehouse somewhere. What with all the war, chaos, etc., it was only a few years ago that it was rediscovered and reassembled.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I know that the standard of debate in the US hasn't exactly been stellar for a while, but I'm finding myself getting increasingly annoyed with the fact that we on this side of the pond are being dragged into the mudslinging. According to the American right wing, we live in some kind of dystopian nightmare state, where government bureaucrats decide whether or not we get medical treatment on the basis of our worth to society.

I feel I should put it on record here that that is not the case. We don't leave the old and infirm to die. Last year my great uncle had an extremely complex experimental heart operation at the age of 90, -- he didn't have to pay anything. My grandmother will soon be having a hip replacement at the age of 84. The NHS is not a terrifying monster -- it's not perfect, and yes, there are waiting lists, but it's cheaper, fairer, and delivers better public health outcomes than the US system. Unlike my friends in the US I don't have to worry about what will happen if I get sick or hurt myself, about affording copayments, or losing my health insurance if I change jobs.

A little example of how healthcare rolls over here: Last year I badly hurt my knee. It wasn't a life threatening injury, nor was it painful to the point where I couldn't work, but it hurt a lot and it left me walking with a Igor-style limp. I saw a general practicioner, then a specialist, then I did a few months of physiotherapy. At no point did I have to pay for anything. Now how would that have gone down in the states? As a non-life-threatening condition, I would not have been able to afford treatment for this on my salary, not even if I had company insurance. Under the US system I would still be walking with a limp. I would be in pain most of the time. I wouldn't be able to go to the gym. I would be fat and unfit again.

Like most people in the UK, I'm happy with the NHS and I'd take to the streets to defend it against anyone who threatened to take it away. This slandering of our system is something that many brits are going to take personally. If the US media is not careful we might start making really barbed remarks. You know, hurtful shit that people won't even realise was an insult until they're on the train home.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

George Fullerton

I saw today that George Fullerton has died. It's not going to be national news, but his nonetheless he was important. His name will be revered whenever two men gather over a pre-CBS stratocaster or an L-2000 and drool.


I've always had a great appreciation for those, like the late Mr Fullerton, who tinker away behind the scenes, who make the unglamorous innovations and get largely passed over by history. I think people like this should be celebrated, not by having their roles exaggerated as some historians tend to do, but by having their contribution noted and appreciated for what it was. People writing histories tend to simplify things, they like to create heroes, visionaries, which are then mythologized as lone geniuses. These brilliant men are held up as the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, the importance of their teamwork, communication, and collaboration are left out.

When I'm writing about the history of science and technology I always try and give a mention to the other people, the people who laid the foundations or did the unglamorous bits. I always try to squeeze in people like Tommy Flowers (The Computer), Ernst Chain (Penicillin), Charlie Taylor (The Aeroplane), and Rosalind Franklin (DNA). Even though those people were, in turn, working with many other people, I feel like including at least one name in addition to the mythologized hero helps introduce at least the idea of collaboration, if not the actual extent of it.

I'm now going to go and play my bass (which is a faithful copy of a Fender-Fullerton design.)


Friday, August 07, 2009

Ben vs. Knees

I have no problem with knees in general, there are even two knees that I'm really rather fond of. However, those knees are not mine. My knees belong to a class of their own -- that is, knees which I deeply dislike. They're not objectionable looking knees, a little nobbly perhaps; and I think the kneecaps are a bit asymmetrical, but they do have an infuriating habit of fucking with my plans.

Around this time two years ago I was a recently graduated unemployed layabout. As I believe is the case with many unemployed layabouts, I found that inactivity bred more inactivity, mentally and phyiscally. I'd made great strides while I was at university; I lost a lot of weight (about 40 pounds) and I'd done a whole world of brainthinky. In the world of rejection letters and endless adverts for jobs in recruitment, however, I found this progress slipping away. By mid-august I'd put about 15 pounds back on, and was rapidly losing the ability to construct coherent sentences (as I'm sure the blog posts from that period will attest) so I decided to do something decisive.

I started going out running every morning. Not very far at first -- the first few times I went out my wobbly and protesting limbs screamed at me to stop within about a minute of my starting -- but I gradually increased the distances I ran everyday, and the speed that I ran it. By october I was running something in the order of 2 miles every afternoon and feeling good. I'd got to the point where I was fit enough that I could do this without once feeling like I wanted to die.I felt myself getting fitter and stronger and I lost about 10 pounds. I even got a job.

A few days after a I started working I went to a local folk night to play guitar with my dad. I was carrying my fretless bass in its bag and thinking about work the next day (I was still new to the world of proper work, and was still expecting to be fired at any moment.) About 10 metres from the door of the pub my left knee made a funny clicking noise and gave way under me. For the rest of the evening it hurt something ungodly. At the time I figured it was something to do with being pitched around in strange directions on the tube; I acknowledged the possibility that my running was a factor, but I assumed that it wasn't the primary cause. This seems a little odd but what you have to bear in mind is that at the time I'd not been out running for three days because of work, and I hadn't ever experienced any pain or discomfort in my knees either during or after running. This incident gets a passing mention in a post I wrote later that evening about all the things about Folk music that get on my nerves.

After a few days, however, it went away. I left it about a week and then went out running one evening after work. This wasn't a very pleasant experience. I wasn't in any pain (again, my knee felt fine during the run) but it was mid-november by this point, and it was dark, and raining, hard. I was running the route that my feet knew off by heart, and there was no-one else around, so knowing where I was going wasn't a problem. Nonetheless, with headphones in my ears and rain splattering on my glasses I was essentially running through a giant, dark, sensory deprivation tank, which wasn't much fun. When I got home my knee felt a little odd, perhaps a bit swollen and tender. The next day it hurt, and continued to hurt for longer than it did the first time. I decided I should knock the running on the head for a month or two.

Over the next few weeks it got worse. It started to hurt all the time. Then hurt more. I started to walk with a limp. A visit to the doctor left me with a support bandage and two weeks worth of muscle relaxants to help the sprain heal. These did fuck all except for making my knee sweaty and uncomfortable when I was at work. I went back to the doctor a few weeks later and got an appointment with the local joint specialist (no, not Stoner Pete) at Queen Mary's.

I described the appointment with the specialist -- and his diagnosis -- here. In addition to explaining why my left knee had so catastrophically fucked up, he was able to tell me why my right knee locked up painfully when I sat in certain positions (a habit it has had for as long as I can remember).

For the next month or two I had to spend every friday morning at a physiotherapy center. I was made to ride on exercise bikes, perform excruciatingly painful exercises involving giant rubber balls, and do odd but difficult things involving frisbees and mini-trampolines. I missed quite a lot of work and had to spend a lot of time on the bus. As there were no showers at the hospital that I could use I had to go all the way home before I could clean myself up. The unpleasant result of that was that I got a yeast infection. On my fucking eyelids. It worked though, and I was able to go back to walking normally. I joined a gym so that I could keep fit without smashing my knees to pieces and was able to go around without looking like a man with a wooden leg.

That's been the situation, more or less, for the last year now -- my knee has twinged from time to time, but not for very long. I've been otherwise fine. That was, until last week, when a routine visit to the gym left me hobbling around like a crone again. I'm currently sitting on my sofa dosed up on painkillers. I have no idea whether this will pass in a few days, or whether I'm going to have to spend another 8 weeks going to the physio every friday and frantically scratching at my eyelids like a crazy person.

Still, I've got Fats Waller playing out of my stereo, and any scientist will tell you that you can't be grumpy while listening to a man who called himself "Fats".


Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I am sitting in my kitchen listening to a little light music and drinking a Gin and Tonic. It's a very nice Gin and Tonic. It has ample quantities of Gordon's gin, Schweppes Tonic, and ice. I don't have a very good memory for shopping lists, so this glass is conspicuously lacking in lime. I'm sure the more blinkered and materialistic of you out there will be thinking that my gin and tonic is incomplete but this is not so. Allow me to explain.

A few years ago I saw a documentary that looked at how the human brain handles arithmetic. As part of their research they went to a Chinese school where the children were taught to use abacuses to calculate fabulously complex sums. They got fast with the abacuses. Very fast. Like a frantic game of table tennis. It was impressive to watch, even though it all seemed a little too much like hard work to me. The really clever part, however, came when they took the abacuses away and taught the children to visualise them in their heads. With a little practice, these same children were able to perform calculations at the same speed as they did before, but just by closing their eyes and wiggling their fingers back and forth for a few seconds.

"This sort of thing is all very well for industrious oriental types," I thought, "but how could it help me?"


For many years the wonder of that technique languished at the back of my mind -- not forgotten, just unused -- until one day I found myself with a shocking absence of limes. I didn't even have any lemons, which are the flavoring of a scoundrel anyway. While a lesser man would have blanched at such a prospect, I simply stroked my mustache thoughtfully, adjusted the set of my monocle, and -- recalling the cunning tricks of the foriegn children -- poured the malaria-preventing drink of kings regardless. While I was doing this I visualised the lime, and chopped it with the power of my mind. I placed this incorporeal lime, this abstract idea of tangy goodness, into my cold glass and drank it down.

The imaginary lime was just as good as a real one, and had fewer calories. Having achieved such a feat of mental prowess I felt like a bhutanese monk. I was proud of the years in which I have honed my powers; meditating on many a clear beverage after a hard day writing about the inscrutable yet fascinating customs of mohammedians. I stood in the kitchen of my london home, feeling like a sadhu in tweeds, and poured myself another.

It remains to be seen whether this lime of the mind is as effective at preventing scurvy.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

New York 3

I'll finish this eventually, probably.

Ellis Island and Liberty Island
During the time I was in the city I took a fairly relaxed attitude to the business of sightseeing -- no itineraries were written out, or lengthy plans made -- I didn't want to waste my time in the city, but I didn't have to work very hard in order to avoid this. There was only one day where me and Kristen actually planned things in advance, and actually went as far as setting an alarm. The night before, in a slightly drunken haze, I'd decided that we should visit Ellis Island the next day, as that was the only major thing that I'd missed the first time.

It turned out that the Ferry to Ellis Island also stopped at Liberty Island. This was an unexpected bonus, although actually going up inside her (snigger) would have required me to have planned ahead and booked tickets some time before I'd even decided to come to New York. The downside of getting a ferry that stops at an internationally known symbol of goodness and the American Way is that you are treated as a potential terrorist from the moment you go near the ticket booth. I went through quite a lot of 'airport style' security while in New York, and had my bag searched* more times than I can count, but the statue of liberty security still came as a bit of a surprise. I mean, their metal detectors were set off by my glasses, for christ's sake, not even when I flew to the US days after a major terrorist scare did I encounter such zealously calibrated machines. We got on the boat after a few minutes being probed in the security tent and were soon chugging away across the harbor. When we got near to the Island the boat started to pitch over at a rather alarming angle as everybody went to the moosh-baroo side to take photos. Kristen, being a salty sea dog** by trade, assured me that this was within safe limits, although it felt still rather precarious to my jelly-like landlubberlegs.

Once disembarked, we walked around the Island and took some pictures of the giant green lady with the big feet. We probably appeared in the background of far more pictures than we actually took ourselves. The statue of Liberty is very big, and very, er, statuey. I've seen her from fairly close up before (on ferries and the like) and well, there are few women who look prettier if you sit at their feet and stare up their nose.

Ellis Island lies just across a narrow channel from Liberty Island. The channel, like most places in New York Harbor, is filled with red and green navigation buoys. Kristen carefully explained the purpose of these but I've probably got all the details mixed up in my head now, so it's just as well that my job hasn't yet required me to man any helms or tillers.

Ellis Island is home to the fascinating Ellis Island museum, which is all about immigration and immigrants (the right sort of immigrants obviously, the ones that politicians are descended from, not the sort that speak spanish). Unlike most New York museums, Ellis Island's is free. It was a fascinating place, filled with little exhibits about the various stages of the Immigration process and the immigrants themselves. It also had some areas where they'd reconstructed what it had looked like when it was in use, which were a bit grim. On the whole though, the impression the exhibits left you with was that Ellis Island wasn't the terrible immigrant marketplace that it's often portrayed as, and that only a tiny, weensy proportion of people were ever rejected and sent home. I do think that they would have been able to process the immigrants much faster if they'd not put the main reception area -- where lots of forms had to be filled out, and questions answered -- in the great hall with the massive windows looking out over Manhattan. I'm guessing that if you'd come from the arse end of the Ukraine, the sight of 19th century New York would have been a little distracting.

The Museum at Ellis Island manages to be free, incidentally, by tapping into an aspect of american culture that I've always found a little sad. You see, in addition to the informative exhibits there were lots of subtle, and not-so-subtle, plugs for the geneological research services they provide on the Island -- "think you might have an ancestor that came through here? Come to our Research-O-Tron and for just thirty dollars we'll tell you."

It's not that I have a problem with finding out about one's past; what bothers me about the sort of research encouraged by Ellis Island is that, most of the time, I feel like it's providing a surrogate cultural identity to people who don't felt that american culture is good enough, or solid enough, to ground themselves in. You know, like the native born New Yorkers who will tell you, with a completely straight face, that they're Irish. Usually on the basis of having one Irish grandparent (I think most people have at least one irish grandparent).

I suppose to many people it's just always more desirable to be from somewhere else, somewhere you can idealise as being more honest, sophisticated, or authentic than where you were born. It's that phenomenon that makes me reluctant to advertise my Britishness when I'm in bars over there -- I've found myself squirming and uncomfortable while some middle-aged guy from the Bronx tells me how he's from Scotland. It's like how a substantial part of the English Upper class have spent the last thousand years or so shutting their eyes, learning Greek or latin, and desperately pretending that they're not in a vulgar, germanic/nordic/celtic country like England. "I mean, ugh, our greatest playright didn't even pay attention to the classiclal unities, how ghastly". The cultural output of the United States has one of the most impressive canons of literature around and american history is marked by a string of noble ideas and well-intentioned individuals that were never able to get the upper hand in Europe. Despite all this, there are still those who cling to the idea that they're not really american, that they're just working over here for a while -- like, I don't know, five generations, and then they'll go home. I feel like these people have missed the point somewhat.

hmm. That was a rather substantial digression.

Rockerfeller Center
Later that day, after stopping to refill on booze, we went to the Rockerfeller center. Not for shopping, or to look at the hole in the ground where the ice rink is in the winter, but to go up it. Of the various things that I'd done in New York last time I was there, the one thing that stuck most in my mind was the view from the top of the empire state building. It was also the one thing that I was determined I had to drag Kristen along to. I didn't want to do the same thing twice though, so I decided to go up the other skyscaper in New York with a viewing area at the top. This was a very wise choice. The top of the Empire State Building, while very high indeed, is ultimately just a narrow balcony encased in a clunky steel cage -- People are constantly treading on your toes, taking photos of the back of your head, and putting the backs of their heads in your photos. By contrast, the Top of the Rock, as it is named, is a three-floor high terrace that covers the whole of the stepped, flat roof of the building. It's big, and comparatively empty. Thanks to the fact that it was closed to the public between the early eighties and the early naughties it's got a well thought through, unobtrusive suicide-guard made from panels of bulletproof glass, rather than the array of steel gratings welded onto other steel gratings that the Empire State Building has.

You can stay up there for hours, and we did, from the early evening to well after sunset. We wandered between the different levels of the terrace, played with the silly art installations, and took photos of darkness settling over the Empire State Building. Through the big binoculars on the rooftop you could see camera flashes from the people on the top of the Empire state building, and the tiny people looking straigh back at you.

Oh, and it had one other really cool feature. As the doors are closing on the lift as you're going up the attendant says "Look up". You look up, and you see a white, backlit drop ceiling. Meh, you think, what's so impressive about that.

Then it goes transparent, and you start flying up a dimly lit liftshaft at the rate of a couple of floors a second. It's like something out of a science fiction film, and quite painfully cool.

So, er. I think that's everything I can think of to say now. I might think of other things at some other time.


* in a manner that manages to leave you annoyed while at the same time being cursory to the point of uselessness.

**one of the pretty ones; she's got no tattoos, and she's never lost a limb to the jaws of the White Whale.