Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The wrecking of British science.

Nobel laureate Harry Kroto wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian today about the dwindling numbers of scientists within the UK.

He states that:

Thirty per cent of physics departments have either been closed or merged in the past five years. What is one to make of the deafening silence of ministers when, last year, the small Sussex chemistry department - a fantastic department to work in, where I stayed for some 37 years and which has housed some 12 fellows of the Royal Society, three Nobel laureates and a Wolf prize winner since it was created in 1962 - was under threat of closure? It was only through the concerted efforts of staff and students that a U-turn occurred.

When the University of Reading announced the closure of its physics department, I remember thinking how shocking it was that this was allowed to happen. In a country where students can study some ridiculous subjects (fashion accessories, packaging, adventure, to name a few), it's somewhat shameful that we can't keep the pure sciences alive.

Kroto goes on to say:

The personal reasons for choosing a science education are also overwhelming. A Royal Society of Chemistry/Institute of Physics study found that graduates with chemistry and physics degrees earn, for the most productive 15-20 years of their working lives, some £15,000 more annually than most other graduates. They earn thousands more than those studying psychology, that seductively popular subject diverting a large proportion of our best young people into dead-end, uncreative careers. It is actually a triple whammy, as the government gets greater investment return in tax from this better-paid workforce, and there are science and technology industries for graduates to enter. The chemical industry posts a £50bn annual turnover with a £5bn profit. Which is more than can be said for law.

The problem is, few science graduates actually stay within the scientific field. Most end up in jobs such as IT, which may give them a chance to use their transferable skills, but inevitably move them further away from a world of science. In my personal experience, most people on my course wanted to be investment bankers - indeed, many of them are now working in finance. Fresh graduates with a steamy loan to pay off are ultimately attracted by money. When the real world hits them, they begin to lose all their desire to change the world and just want to earn money and get on with their lives - even if it means selling their souls.

Finally, Kroto mentions:

The scientific method is based on what I prefer to call the inquiring mindset. It includes all areas of human thoughtful activity that categorically eschew "belief", the enemy of rationality. This mindset is a nebulous mixture of doubt, questioning, observation, experiment and, above all, curiosity, which small children possess in spades. I would argue that it is the most important, intrinsically human quality we possess, and it is responsible for the creation of the modern, enlightened portion of the world that some of us are fortunate to inhabit. Curiously, for the majority of our youth, the educational system magically causes this capacity to disappear by adolescence.

Science education in schools is disgustingly drab. As a tutor, I find myself teaching children who neither understand science, nor want to understand science. It's "hard" or "geeky" or "boring" or "means nothing".

As well as being taught in a decidedly unimaginative fashion, science has also been dumbed down to the point of ignorant within some schools. In its terrible obsession to breed achievers, the government hasn't realised that its A grade pupils know absolutely nothing. At some point along the system, the top students realise this and are probably so disillusioned by the system that they believe university will hold the same unsatisfying answers for them.

I believe science education is in serious need of a revamp. The only problem is, nobody in government is willing to stand up and do something about it, and when they are, it will probably be too late.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Everything Is Electric: Second Life

Everything Is Electric: Second Life

I'm discovering new blogs! Read this and found it quite amusing.

I promise the novelty of owning a blog will wear off soon...

Save the children.

I have come to the conclusion that society is inherently mean. It’s not an in-your-face mean, but a subtle, gnawing mean. Let me give you an example:

Woman is raped. Woman’s rape is reported by the media. Woman is discovered to have been clubbing in the early hours of the morning, wearing a short skirt and wandering the streets inebriated and alone. Society will shake their heads in unison: “Vicious vile rapist! He’s scum, he is; I hope he gets castrated…” And everybody has a good ol’ moment talking about what a monstrous man would do such a thing.

“… But, being out in the middle of the night alone, half-naked and drunk? She was asking for it, wasn’t she?”

And there it goes. The crucial “but” where they can subtly attack the victim in order to shift the blame onto a victim who has already suffered enough from their mistake. Instead of concentrating on the person truly at fault – the rapist – society are quick to reprimand the victim. It’s quite an interesting psychological phenomenon – why do people exchange empathy for blame? Is it to balance the universe? To ensure that all their condolences are matched with criticism?

The reason I bring this up, is because I’ve noticed the blame brigade at full force on various discussion forums in the past few weeks. Madeleine McCann is a four-year-old British toddler who was taken from her room in Portugal, over two weeks ago. Her parents left her, and their two other children, there whilst they had dinner yards away, checking on them every half an hour or so.

And in come the pious parents. “I would NEVER leave my child alone like that, oh no. I tie them to me with a piece of string just to make sure they’re protected from the paedophiles and perverts hiding under their beds. How irresponsible and terrible of them! As a parent I just cannot understand why they would do such an evil thing!”

Well done, you procreated; you are the epitome of parenthood.

It’s ridiculous. I’ve seen parents go crazy on forums, taking digs at the McCanns, asking for their arrest and for their remaining twins to be taken from them and placed in social care. Aside from the fact that doing so would tear apart an already ruptured family, the comments just reek of superiority and lack any sense of empathy. Some are acting as though every time a child is left alone, they'll spontaneously combust.

There are moments in the lives of every parent where their back is turned and their child falls, or burns themselves, or drinks glue, or is lost in the crowd for a second. Just because the chances are rare that someone will climb into a child's bedroom window and take them while their parents aren't there, doesn't mean that the lucky ones are the perfect parents.

The crime was committed by someone who probably would have got Madeleine anyway. At the beach, while her mother turned her back, or during some other, more opportune, moment. It is the ABDUCTOR’S fault. It is ENTIRELY their fault.

Enough of rubbing the wounds with salt. People make mistakes. People have regrets. A few unlucky people will make a mistake that they will never stop regretting, with hindsight forever haunting them. Being told they made a mistake is neither enlightening nor helpful.

And if people can't muster up any compassion and still feel angry or certain that Madeleine was mistreated in some way, then I hope they direct their emotion towards something more constructive than a smug sense of blame.

I can only urge such people to have a look at the work of these charities and see if there's an issue they can campaign for instead of engaging in idle judgement.









If these causes don't tug at any heart strings, then there are hundreds more small charities for children set up in the UK. Do a quick web search, pick a few charities and drop them an email to ask how your money or time may help children escape a terrible fate.

Past articles have been updated.

I've posted a few of my past pieces of writing that I've now managed to lift off of my laptop hard drive (after many headaches).

I'm not sure of some of the dates, but most columns were written between 2005 and 2006.

I've also got 3 other blog entries that I made whilst on work experience with the Guardian. I'm not sure how weird the staff thought I was for this, but my first was on panda porn.

I also wrote moon mysteries and water marks.

And that concludes the old stuff! Time permitting, I hope to add some new ramblings for you all to read. I've had a couple of visitors now, so I guess this means the world can see me!

I hope I give the world something worth seeing. :)

Plenty more fish in the sea.

Unpublished, written 2006.

I like to define the importance of an event from the speed at which it reaches Wikipedia. Almost immediately after its sighting, the Thames Whale had its own byte or two of cyber fame. According to the article, “at 0830 GMT on Friday 20 January, a man on a train called the authorities to say that he believed he had been hallucinating, as he thought he had just spotted a whale swimming in the River Thames.”

So you’ve been hallucinating, be that drug/caffeine/revision induced, and are pretty certain that you’ve gone totally bonkers. Of all the people to call, you call the authorities? Odd, but then he was obviously prone to hallucinating.

Back to the whale, sightings were reported throughout the day, until it was eventually surrounded by TV cameras and members of the public eager to see how the story unfolded. It’s quite like a baby being surrounded, photographed and poked by random folk he’s never seen before. If babies could run away, they probably would. And had this whale not had a few bumps on the head, he probably would have swum away too.

But I shouldn’t pick on the overzealous media and their flashing cameras which probably confused an already confused mammal further. This was probably the only news story in eons, unrelated to bomb explosions, which had people glued to their television sets for longer than a nanosecond.

It was indeed a beautiful moment for mankind. Even normally obnoxious Londoners set aside their usual rules of not smiling/talking/breathing to unite in their common desire for the safe escape of the whale. There’s something very powerful about a whale when it can go against all powers of the universe to actually bring people together. A few tonnes of blubber are actually more potent than all the religion/drugs/Live8 concerts in the world. Interesting.

It’s also interesting how people are so easily coerced into caring about the fate of one whale, yet are not prepared to shed even a single tear for the seven, or so, whales slaughtered everyday. Or perhaps even do something as simple as dealing with the pollution in the Thames which most likely contributed to the whale’s death. There are so many battles left to fight, yet people are continuing with their everyday lives, keeping the whale’s battle for life as a mere memory they can recount to their grandchildren.

Other battles are too complicated to care about, I suppose. But it’s always nice to have that random spasm of unity before people return to stepping on each others’ toes on the Tube.

A fairytale affair.

First published 2006.

Oh summer, here we are again. Exams loom around the corner and procrastination is rife. Whilst summer should be a time of frolic, merriment and sex, the evil powers that subject us to the doom and gloom that is the E-word. I’ve decided I’m replacing that word with “fanny”. It seems to be taking off. “What are you up to, Nush?” “Oh, I’m just preparing to take my final fanny of the year.” Small things, small things.

Speaking of small things, fannies and sex, I am rather disgusted that John Prescott dared to not only attempt to procreate with his wife, but with two other women. During my research for this column, I also unwittingly found out that he was a member of the National Union of Seamen. Thanks to my sick mind, I’m already having frequent nightmares and now I have to think about his love-juice being spurted on his many women. I am absolutely perplexed how any woman could find that a turn-on.

You see, his “tearful” mistress claims that she was not attracted to the power. That would have been my first guess, but whatever, I’m sure his dashing good looks, charming personality, non-greasiness and amazing honesty came into the attraction factor somewhere. I wish people would just own up to their power fetishes. Why tiptoe around it and try and make us believe that politicians are sexual animals just waiting for a good rogering? Or worse, people who have a personality. Politicians only ever have sex because they’re in power. It’s fact. Bill Clinton, John Major, Robin Cook, Jeffrey Archer, were all old, greasy, ugly men with one common trait: their power.

Power seems to be the key, yet all these women claim that they weren’t drawn to the power or hungry for male attention. So what is it then?

Well luckily, with the hours of procrastination available to me, I have been scientifically investigating Prescott’s “fit factor”. My extremely thorough analysis centred on observing Prescott’s picture from as many possible angles as Google could deliver. I’ve come to the conclusion that he looks like a frog. An evil frog.

And then it hit me. He’s at the top of the evolutionary ladder; he has mastered the art of luring in potential mates. You see, his genetics enable him to resemble the famous kissable frog which so many ladies desperately want to turn into a prince. With the added evil factor, this man is a woman’s heaven! A naughty prince that she can spend an entire lifetime trying to tame. This man is God and should be worshipped.

He should be worshipped and made holy. So holy that he becomes asexual.

And then, I can sleep again.

Life isn't fair.

First published 2oo5.

When I heard the news reports last year, recounting how a prisoner serving time for rape had won £7m in the Lottery, my psychic radar went into overdrive. I had visions of mass tabloid headlines exclaiming exaggerated hostility towards perpetrator Iorworth Hoare. The Sun never fails to disappoint me when it comes to predictability, and I expect media hype once more now that Hoare’s been released back into society, where he’s now free to spend his money as he pleases.

I can just see it now: “We caught the bastard! Then let him go. And now he’s spending his millions. He just bought himself a pair of pants. SHOCKING STUFF!”

Unfortunately, luck and fair aren’t synonyms. My friends in Math Soc will probably argue that luck doesn’t even exist.

I once stayed up all night working on my GCSE coursework, and my teacher was sick the next day, hence the deadline was extended. As you can imagine, I wasn’t particularly happy and extremely envious of everyone who didn’t bother and still got a better grade than me. It’s a childish jealousy parallel to this which is plaguing the minds of those shouting: “Dirty rapist! How dare he win the Lottery? I deserve to win, damn it!” (Incidentally, a woman undergoing cancer treatment won the highest Lottery jackpot ever, just around the same time as Hoare.)

The lottery is what the lottery is. They don’t care if a rich person wins, thereby becoming even richer, so why care when a convicted criminal wins? Does the lottery need a new set of rules to decide who is worthy? (If so, I think poor students need priority.)

Victim support groups have already expressed anger at the win. One feminist writer even went as far to say that Hoare “should give every single penny of that money to rape crisis organisations”.


Hoare went against British law, and was consequentially punished by imprisonment, not confiscation of earnings. He has paid his metaphorical debt to society; why are people hell bent on suing him/cajoling him into giving the money away? He obtained the ticket, he paid his money and he contravened neither the rules of the National Lottery nor the terms of his punishment. He didn’t even have access to the money until he had finished serving his sentence in full. Fair enough, eh?

Unfortunately, our puritanical society just can’t hack it, and would prefer that High Court judgements be arbitrarily altered to divert such winnings to a criminal's victims.

Exactly how, I wonder, do they envisage the precise definitions of such a law? And where do they draw the line? What if Hoare had bought his ticket before he had been convicted? What if he hadn’t won? Is he only held responsible for all the crimes of his past once he starts getting some dosh? Is prison not enough? Will financially depriving criminals reduce crime?

And precisely how much compensation will make victims feel better?

£7m will not make any difference to someone who was raped 20 years ago. £7m to the prison system will not make any difference to someone who was raped 20 years ago. Taking the money from him will not make any difference to someone who was raped 20 years ago. It takes a lot more than monetary bribery.

As a student, I can see why he doesn’t want to give the money away, even if he is sorry for his crimes. Good luck to him, I say. I optimistically hope he’s realised the error of his ways and manages to avoid the paparazzi as he buys himself some milk and bread.

It’s all very well being self-righteous when one’s never had such large amounts of mind-corrupting cash, but £7m is a lot of money to give away. How many of you would?

Fertilised, with wrinkly bits.

First published 11th May 2006.

I’ve been pondering over what exactly is so disturbing about a 63-year-old woman giving birth. It’s amusing how so many people have taken to calling the pregnant Patricia Rashbrook a selfish woman who obviously is terrible at her job because no child psychologist in their right mind would be an old mother.

I’m not sure if people have realised, but having a child (out of choice) is an inherently selfish affair. There’s the obvious argument of biological propagation (though the egg used in the IVF treatment was not hers, her husband wanted a child). And then there are the countless other reasons a couple might have a child: the need to love something, the need to own something, the need to stare at something cute, the need for company, the need for care in old age, the need to feel good about themselves, the need for a donor for another child, and sometimes, even the need to save their marriage.

I cannot think of a single unselfish reason to have a child, because even seemingly selfless acts provide immense gratification to a couple. So this whole “plunging to new depths of selfishness” argument is stupid. Morally, people can do worse than have a child in their 60’s.

Then we have the “baby is for life” objection. Now before we see banners stating “a baby is for life, not just for Christmas,” let’s look at this whole thing in perspective. The problem some people have is that they reckon a child needs somebody who will run around and play games with them in order to be emotionally healthy. Now I don’t know about anyone else, but when I was a child, both my parents were too tired from working to be able to spend time kicking a football around in a park with me. Leaving aside the fact that none of us know how fit and healthy Rashbrook is (she looks quite radiant), is physical playtime with children the only way to help them develop?

Children are active creatures and they can keep themselves entertained or play with other kids. They are not going to mind that their parents don’t want to run up and down the stairs with them twenty times for fun. Is there really no value for mental stimulation? What about the arts, reading, music, politics, morality and the many other things this couple could have to offer? How long will a child be entertained by simply kicking a football around? One year? Two years?

So the early years pass by, and the child grows into a rebellious teenager. Oh dear. How embarrassing to have old parents, right? Everyone wants a cool, young, hip mum! The truth is, no matter what a parent does, they will be embarrassing for their child until he grows up and learns that they’re human beings and not aliens sent to make their lives a misery. Curfews, silly dancing, driving a horrible car and many other mediocre things would upset an angst ridden teenager. But asking your dad to drop you off a couple of blocks away from school so your friends don’t see him isn’t as selfish as being an old parent.

Probably one of the biggest problems all these disturbed folk have is that Rashbrook could die or become ill well before her child’s 21st birthday. Of course old people are more likely to die or become infirm than us virile, fertile twenty-something’s, but then so are disabled and poor parents. Is it irresponsible for anyone to procreate just because they may die tomorrow? If either Rashbrook or her partner were already quite ill, maybe this argument would have some substance, but they currently seem very healthy. To expect them to sit there and predict how long they will live before giving birth is unfair. Not even actuaries, who have previously vastly under-calculated the increase in lifespan, get that right. Besides, when exactly is the right time for a parent to die? Does it really hurt less to lose a parent at an older age? It would suck to be left alone, but people are passing judgement without knowing about any extended family that would help in the case of such a loss.

There are also issues with her choice of doctor, Severino Antinori, the nutcase who claimed to have created a human embryo via cloning. He said Rashbrook was "perfect" for the treatment and because “she is very slim, blonde and in perfect condition, she fits all the criteria for maternity." What’s surprising is that nobody suggested it was disgusting for a doctor to suggest only slim, blonde (how random) women are fit for maternity. Nope, old women giving birth are disgusting, but being a pratt isn’t.

Of course there exists the wider argument that old ladies giving birth are unnatural. Wow, someone stop the press. The whole point of medicine is to challenge the course of nature. IVF in general is an unnatural procedure, but people only really call on that fact when something particularly disgusts them. The rest of the time it’s a “miracle”.

And that brings me back to my initial point. Why exactly are people so disgusted by this news? The real reason people are having issues is because they're imagining things going in and out of a 63-year-old vagina and it disturbs their internal ideas of what's normal. What I find peculiar in all of these discussions about Rashbrook’s new found motherhood is that people will never challenge their perceptions of normality; the just seek to chastise this couple by calling them selfish.

Maybe “selfish” is the new polite way of saying, “women with wrinkly bits make me want to be sick”?

Gagging for it?

First published 2005-2006.

Far be it from me to act the feminist, but I have to say Amnesty International’s recent poll on rape was rather shocking. Whilst a man wearing a fancy watch, talking on a posh mobile phone with his wallet bulging in his trousers, would never be blamed for inciting the temptations of a mugger, a third of people believe that women are partially responsible for being raped – just for flirting or dressing provocatively.

Not an entirely unexpected view in a “she’s asking for it” culture, but still very unnerving. Whilst you could easily flip the results to say that two thirds of society don’t believe that a woman is responsible, it is still evident that a lot more work needs to be done to counter public attitudes towards rape. Sure, we’ve moved on from thirty years ago when the majority would have blamed the woman, maybe we can even feel good about ourselves, but our responsibilities do not stop there.

Even women proved themselves, once again, to be the biggest critics of other women, with more women than men believing the woman is at fault for being dressed provocatively. Just goes to show how jealous and vindictive some women can be.

The problem with these sorts of opinions is that many people confuse probability and responsibility. I could significantly reduce the probability of being killed in a car crash if I never leave my room again. But, I don’t want to be a hermit. I could avert the lustful eyes of men if I wore non-revealing clothes, or I could significantly reduce my chances of being raped if I just became a man. Unfortunately, I don’t want a sex change and I like wearing feminine clothing. So, am I just meant to sit in my room for fear of being raped? Even then, it would only take one cloistered nun or one 80-year-old with limited mobility to be raped to increase my chances of being raped just by sitting in my room.

Both of these events have happened.

It’s a common argument that women need to understand the disgusting ways of men to avoid being raped. If a woman doesn’t “understand the psyche” of a rapist and gets raped, it’s her fault, because, after all, it’s the job of every woman to get inside the head of every potential rapist in the world, and to not do anything that might tweak their particular little rape triggers.

Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, made a brilliant comment when it was suggested that the solution to rape was to keep women in after dark: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay at home, not the women.”

No one who offers the excuse that men can’t control themselves ever suggests that controlling their behaviour is the answer. Instead, the solution is always for women to give up their freedom. The suggestion that men should curtail their activities to make women safer never enters discussion; the focus is always on female behaviour. The only explanation for that focus is that no matter what may be said to the contrary, people do blame women for being raped.

Aside from being very anti-feminist, these views are also grossly disrespectful to men. By saying that a woman is at fault for dressing in naughty clothing, these results show that people believe men cannot control their lustful desires, to the point of needing to force themselves upon a woman for showing a bit of leg. I know the age of chivalry has long since flown by, but I certainly don’t believe common decency is dead yet. Not every man is an animal.

As usual, this entire media frenzy has concentrated on opportunist rapists. The unfortunate fact that is ignored is sometimes you get women who are raped by people known to them. Despite what they may or may not have been wearing at the time. They weren’t taking any “risks” and automatically assumed they were in a safe place; they still got raped.

In what way did they ask for that?

The right to decide who lives?

First published 2005-2006.

I feel sorry for medics. Not because they all have to study for a further gazillion years after the rest of us graduate, but because they are faced with difficult decisions on a daily basis.

George Best is back in intensive care (again). The surgeon who gave him a liver transplant is calling for alcohol abusers to be kicked off the donor list, or least to have some form of assessment that proves they won’t revisit the booze fairy. Apparently, Best now has a kidney infection as a result of his immunosuppressive drugs, which was probably catalysed by his continued post-op binge drinking.

That’s entering rather dangerous territory. As arrogant as some medics may be (cough, Oxford graduates, cough), they really aren’t in a position to play some form of divine being and decide who deserves a transplant. Imperial’s own version of the Hippocratic Oath states: “I will not permit considerations of gender, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, nationality, or social standing to influence my duty of care.” That, to me, essentially means that a good doctor doesn’t judge their patients.

I respect that giving body parts to save someone’s life is an invaluable gift and a difficult decision for the family to have to take on the deceased’s behalf. I also accept that Best’s self-destructive behaviour strengthens the argument of people who don't like organ donation – why give away the final legacy of a loved one only to see it abused? This does severely jeopardise the number of people signing up to be organ donors.

But it’s still wrong to just leave someone for dead, whether or not their condition was self-inflicted. When someone slits their wrists in front of you, the right thing to do is dial 999 and get help, not watch them die whilst telling them that they don’t deserve to live anyway.

And Best’s surgeon also seems to have forgotten that when someone is suffering a life threatening condition - whatever it is, and however it was caused - it is not just them that suffer but also those around them. A doctor’s responsibility also extends to those people who are suffering as a direct result of their patient. It really is just harsh to make flippant remarks regarding who deserves one of very few livers when their family are entirely innocent in the matter.
There is now a vast danger of doctors being forced into turning patients away on the grounds of lack of resources, rather than for medical reasons. If there were copious amounts of organs available for transplant, measures such as removing alcoholics and smokers from the waiting lists would not even transpire.
Medics would be saved the burden of harsh judgements if resources were not an issue. In an ideal world, every patient would get the drugs and treatment they require, but the fact that there are shortages does not mean we should create a list of lesser/greater individuals.

There are two morals to the story. One is to do things in moderation – don’t make your self unnecessarily sick and put doctors in such difficult positions. The other is to carry a donor card, regardless of who you think the organs may go to. Nearly half of all liver disease cases are alcohol related – but over half aren’t. The more organs there are, the better the chances for those on the waiting list. Don’t hold them back.

Allocating blame.

First published 2005-2006.

I just heard “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on the radio. Marvellous song by Britney Spears, I must say. Her insightful lyrics just make me want to punch a woman in the face. And then sue her for inciting domestic abuse. I’m being ridiculously sarcastic.

Nobody blames the alcohol when someone drinks and drives. They blame the person for being such an idiotic moron. So why are artists to be held personally responsible for anything they may or may not say in their art?

As if a murder involving a young woman being stuffed into a suitcase wasn’t headline worthy enough, the added spin that the man who killed her idolised Eminem makes for saucier reading – and provides yet another excuse for society to blame everybody but themselves for the ills in the world.

This is merely something which happens when people confuse musical lyrics and real life and totally misinterpret a song that was written to set an example against such crazy behaviour. “Stan,” the song in question, may talk about violence, but then already violent minds are bound to pick up on it. I didn’t see Christopher Duncan pick up on the lyric: “I really think you and your girlfriend need each other, or maybe you just need to treat her better.”

Attempting to map a general pattern of social deviances and attaching it to rap lyrics really isn’t realistic or fair. There are millions upon millions of Eminem fans; how many of them would take a baseball bat to a girl’s head? Some people are destined to be nuts even if they’re hardcore fans of Elton John, whose relatively harmless lyrics couldn’t possibly anger anyone.

As with everything else in the world, from religious texts to an unmade bed, musical lyrics are open to interpretation and a consequent acceptance or non-acceptance of the information. We don’t need to be censoring gangster rap (however awful it may sound), but rather teaching our children how to think for themselves, as opposed to absorbing literal language like vegetables.

Parents should take a look at their kids’ music. Not forbid it. By taking some time to explain the satire behind certain lyrics, the teenager, first of all, wouldn’t feel rejected because of his musical tastes. If their sons and daughters are still experiencing difficulties, the parental role is to warn them against misinterpretation and to urge them not to act foolishly. A simple role in a child’s life could stop them from growing up to think that certain acts are right; if nobody tells a child not to stick their fingers in the plug, they’ll never understand that it’s bad for them. People are continuously making excuses for bad parenting. Somebody shoots students in his school and it’s suddenly the fault of guns being glamorised on television.

There are many factors which could lead to somebody wishing to imitate Eminem to the extent of acting out his songs, but bad parenting is probably a good start. Whilst musicians have responsibility over what they promote, it takes a certain frame of mind to pick one type of music over another. How many murders have we seen in the media with the perpetrator emulating “Bob the Builder”?

Or maybe it isn’t as easy to put the blame on something so silly.

Kids, eh?

First published 2006.

Sometimes I feel like I’m turning into my mother, patronising the “times of today” as though my era were so much better. I’m not that old, but I have to deplore today’s society when 15-year-olds are being stabbed in school.

The school’s principal had this to say: “The school has a very clear, well established anti-bullying policy. It is a shocking and appalling incident and it has shocked the whole college community.” Of course it’s an awful incident! Why don’t you focus on that as opposed to defending something that so evidently happens? The anti-bullying policy is clearly not being implemented very well, is it? Because I doubt the first port of call was to stab this poor girl; the bullies must have been after her for a while.

Every time a child in this country is stabbed or beaten to death by his “schoolmates”, all they can do is a bit of “soul searching” as opposed to confronting the problem. “How it could have happened here?” they ask. Because it’s been going on forever, that’s how. It’s almost as if they have no memory of their own schooldays and are completely blind to the cruelty around them.

Children are no more angels than the rest of us. Like most other human-beings, they’re not even on the same level as animals. An animal will hurt you for survival; a human-being will hurt you for fun. What remarkable role models we all are to the youth of today. I wonder how many children have seen fox hunters parading their silly selves on television, out rightly undermining the authority of the government, thinking that antisocial behaviour is OK in the name of sport.

Many, if not most, British schools (fee-paying, or not) are host to chronic, petty violence. If you are a parent, teacher or guardian with enough time and patience, you can attempt to coax children out of their inherent evil, but it’s much easier to pretend that it isn’t there, or to temporarily suppress its worst manifestations.

I’ve seen generations of bullying in action. I only have to walk up and down my local high street a few times to see the gangs of chavs pick on anybody not dressed as ridiculously as them. I, myself, got rather biblically stoned at primary school, once upon a time. Of course, my wonderfully supportive school imparted only the best of punishments: they put the perpetrators’ names in the infamous “black book”. This cycle of inane bullying and punishment continued for a few months, until my parents eventually conceded and told me I could fight back. Needless to say, after I bit the little fiends, they never touched me again. Typically, I was punished for my actions whilst the bullies continued their reign of terror on the playground.

I still get the feeling that nobody knows how to handle such a senseless crime. Perhaps they don’t know how to handle it because they continuously deny that it happens. In the same vein that parents who will readily believe their child is a gem yet refuse to believe he's capable of stealing, schools want to believe they are the epitome of perfection and bullying isn’t an issue.

Most schools don’t even provide somebody that a child can turn to. Teachers will either refuse to take anything said seriously (“just ignore it” and “stop being so silly” are common deterring, patronising phrases that they come out with), or, if they happen to see bullying in action, fear of being attacked themselves or losing their jobs stops them from intervening. Parents of the victim can only do so much about an environment that they aren’t in on a day to day basis, and parents of the bully refuse to believe their child is flawed. And then, finally, when a child is attacked on school grounds, schools will seek to blame everything but themselves; television, music, parents and Marylin Manson, to name a few.Why is bullying turned into such a non-issue? Is it because it’s conducted by children, the world’s little angels? It’s time to wake up to the fact that kids are growing up much faster these days, taking on both the good and bad points of adulthood. If schools are going to be handing out condoms to 12-year-olds, they shouldn’t need to worry about holding those same 12-year-olds accountable for their actions. They want to grow up faster? Fine, let them grow up and face the rules and laws of the society we live in. If they do something wrong, then they need to be brought to trial and punished for their actions. That’ll teach them to have underage sex and stab people in the eye.

Stop hiding from bullying; face up to it. The more something is taboo, the worse it’ll get behind those annoying closed doors. Bring everything out into the open; children who bully should be named and shamed within the school. Let them face the embarrassment that all other, more grown-up, criminals face. Let them face the same trials and punishments, and give their victims some justice. Give teachers a safe working environment by allowing them to defend themselves and their pupils without fear of prosecution.

If children want to act like adults, by all means, just let them. They’ll soon go back to playing with their toys when they learn the bad isn’t as fun as the good.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

My brand new blog.

So, I've given in and started writing a blog.

This is partly because I've been stripped of my column inches since graduating university and partly to give me something to do until I find my dream job. I'd like to collect together all my old little bits of writing before I start "officially" (my laptop blew up and I've been googling my name ever since).

So take this as a work in progress. Not that I'm expecting any visitors just yet, but in case someone accidentally stumbles across this and wonders what it's about. Having a read of my past rants may give you an idea of what sort of thing to expect, but I rarely restrict myself to writing about one thing. I like to offer a (sometimes) refreshing opinion on most topics, if only to start a debate.

I'm about learning and debating in a rational, and hopefully unbiased way. I guess Chris Rock puts it best:

The whole country's got a fucked up mentality. We all got a gang mentality. Republicans are fucking idiots. Democrats are fucking idiots. Conservatives are idiots and liberals are idiots.

Anyone who makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a fucking fool. Everybody is so busy wanting to be down with a gang! I'm a conservative! I'm a liberal! I'm a conservative! It's bullshit!

Be a fucking person. Listen. Let it swirl around your head. Then form your opinion.

No normal decent person is one thing. OK!?! I got some shit I'm conservative about, I got some shit I'm liberal about.

Crime - I'm conservative. Prostitution - I'm liberal.

That's why I'm slightly left of nowhere.

MODS, media and misinterpretations

First published Dec 9th 2004

The new MODS – Multiplexed Optical Data Storage – discs could potentially store up to one terabyte of data each. Although not yet mastered, the team have ‘demonstrated what can be done’. To achieve the maximum storage capacity, the MODS discs will be double sided and dual layered, and instead of storing one bit per pit like conventional CDs and DVDs, MODS discs can store eight bits due to the asymmetrical nature of the pits.

Dr Peter Török will be attending a meeting later on this year to find out if the discs are viable for mass manufacture, and is confident that their fabrication will be easy and cheap. Research and funding permitting, Dr Török estimates that the discs will be available on the market within five to ten years. Although he emphasised that “there have been a lot of misinterpretations and misunderstandings” surrounding the new discs, and this timescale is “largely affected by political and financial factors as well as technological factors”, a fact missed out by a large majority of articles covering this technology.

The BluRay disc, although technically sound, has had its date of release pushed back due to these reasons. Before a new data disc comes into the market, a universal standard must be agreed by the companies which will produce it, which can take a great deal of time. The BluRay consortium was set up for this very purpose, to establish a universal standard for the BluRay media. The other factor is that the companies will want to make as much money as they can out of previous technologies before they render them obsolete and embrace new ones. This can be seen by the fact that only now is VHS being withdrawn from sale, and DVDs are being given greater emphasis. BluRay can only come out once the companies have made enough money from the sale of DVDs, or they are forced to market their product by the competition, and consequently MODS discs will most likely be able to come on to the market once the companies have milked all they can from BluRay.

Once it has been established whether it is technologically and financially possible to mass-produce MODS discs and share data, the team hope to further research whether a writing/rewriting facility can be made available. Dr Török mentioned that they do have the capacity to reach that status, but again it is heavily dependent on further funding.

30-year data storage pioneer Michael Thomas, owner of Colossal Storage, believes that the concept will fail because the design is prone to complex errors, and that it may just be better to continue to store large amounts of data on a hard drive, but Dr Török believes that this is only partially true. Any data system relying on fitting a large amount of data in a smaller space will always be prone to error for a number of reasons, even when comparing DVD and CD discs. The same thickness of scratch on a DVD takes out many more bits of data than on a CD, and this effect is even greater for MODS discs, especially as the wavelength of light involved is significantly smaller (around 405nm). This does not mean, however, that the whole technology can be dismissed and in actual fact the BluRay disc is likely to be similarly scratch sensitive. Hard drives are in fact far more delicate than discs, hence having to keep them contained. The advantage of MODS discs when it comes to data protection is that a large number of discs can be produced for low cost, so duplicate copies will be easy to produce.

Dr Török emphasised that whilst you could fit a large amount of data on one disc, for example a few series of The Simpsons, it may not necessarily reduce the cost of the MODS on the market. Whilst they are still cheap to produce, movies and music will still be subject to additional charges. “You don’t buy the disc [in that case], you support the large number of people behind the production”, so all episodes of a TV series on one MODS disc will cost no less than a box set of DVDs, but there will be the added convenience of having everything on one disc and saving valuable space on the shelf.

He also stressed that the project is very much collaborative, with a number of people significantly involved, including his PhD student, Mr Peter Munro. The other members of the team are Dr Martin Salt, Professor Hans Peter Herzig and Mr Carsten Rockstuhl from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland and Emmanouil Kriezis from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece.

The team have applied for funding to EPSRC and are currently in the process of writing a European grant application to fund their research further. The latter is a collaboration between the Imperial physics and electrical engineering (led by Dr Eric Yeatman) departments, the Technical University of Delft, the University of Neuchatel and Aristotle University. Dr Török has also set up a website to reveal the facts behind popular claims, as well as further details behind the new technology. This can be found at www.imperial.ac.uk/research/photonics/pt_group/peter_torok_research.htm.

God bless America.

First published Feb 23rd 2006

In a nation where the country's vice president can get away with shooting a man whilst hunting without a license, it's expected that odd events will transpire. But I'm never quite prepared for the daily shocks delivered by the Associated Press. OK, so Swiss zookeepers are more worried about their swans' sex lives than bird flu, German boys are tying themselves to foldaway beds for fun and Taiwanese drunk drivers can choose to either pay a fine or play mah-jong with the elderly as a punishment, but Americans win hands down for the most consistently weird and stupid news stories.

So, imagine the scene. You're in Oklahoma, and you've just sat down with your girlfriend and her family for a lovely home cooked meal. Everything's going swimmingly well, and so you take your girlfriend by the hand, lead her into the back room, hold her head in your hands, move your face closer to hers and bite off her nose. That's right. A man in Oklahoma actually bit off his girlfriend's nose. And if that wasn't bad enough, he swallowed it. So now, some poor girl is wandering the states of America with no nose because it got digested by her boyfriend.

Whatever, it's just one twisted man, right? This sort of craziness surely can't permeate the entire United States, right? Well, in Los Angeles, 1500 miles away from Oklahoma, a 16-year-old girl who lost a leg when she was hit by a car has had her artificial limbs stolen, for the second time in three months. With a combined value of $28 000, it's easy to see why her prosthetic limbs would be a target, but then it would also make sense to eBay them to someone who needed a cheap limb. However, the last time this happened (when only one limb was taken), the stolen limb was discovered in the teenager's backyard a few months later. This can really only mean one thing: the limb was stolen for temporary kicks, pardon the pun.

And if you thought prosthetic limb fetishes were bizarre, think again. In Wisconsin, a man faces three years in prison for a huge burglary spree. Did he steal money? No. He stole dozens of doorknobs, apparently to feed his growing doorknob obsession. However, he tried to be clever by stealing lots of other materials at the same time to disguise the fact that he was really after the doorknobs. Cunning, very cunning.

Swiftly moving on from knob-obsessed men, in Illinois, a mother decided to leave her 2-year-old son in her van whilst she did a spot of shopping. She also left the engine running. As a result, the toddler managed to work his way into the driver's seat and put the car into drive. The van coasted through a car-wash and two panels of fencing before hitting the side of a house. The boy was left unharmed. I don't know whether to applaud the intelligence of the child or scorn the intelligence of the mother. You just don't leave babies in automatic cars; it's just stupid.

Finally, from the very young to the very old, we move on to Ohio, where two 60-somethings decided to get married at the same place where they mourned their spouses. Oh yes, this crazy couple decided to marry in the funeral home where they both attended a grief support group. Maybe they wanted it to be sentimental, or maybe they just enjoyed the atmosphere of death and mourning. Whatever it was, it made them fall in love, and the couple had a very pretty wedding with both a harpist and a flutist playing together. The world is indeed a beautiful place. Especially the good ol' US of A. As their beloved president, George Bush might say, we clearly misunderestimated them.

For Freedom!

First published Feb 9th 2006

Freedom of expression is one of my favourite human rights (alongside the right to own property). But nothing is more confusing than the laws surrounding freedom of expression, and its unwritten boundaries.

Nick Griffin (leader of the British National Party, or BNP) and one of his loyal monkeys were recently cleared of race hate charges following a documentary by an undercover BBC journalist. The documentary included speeches proclaiming Islam as a "wicked, vicious faith" and likening asylum seekers to cockroaches, which is ironic considering the BNP are probably a worse pest than any cockroach.

Nick Griffin considered his win to be a "victory for freedom".

While the BNP couple were being trialled, Danish products were being boycotted by the Islamic world because of an offensive cartoons published by a Danish newspaper. The cartoons depicted the prophet with a bomb on his head, obviously sparking reactions from Muslims everywhere. The UN even had to appoint two experts on racism to investigate "disrespect for belief ".

However, despite demonstrations becoming more intense, the newspaper continued to defend its freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is a beautiful thing. It gives rise to the vast variety of philosophies all over the world and enables us to learn some interesting things from one another. Heck, it even allows me to have my own column in a student newspaper where I can rant my cares away.
But I can't help but wonder, is it really only worthwhile exercising that right when you have something meaningful to say? Should we ban stupid people from freely expressing themselves? Where do we draw the line between meaningful and mind-numbingly irritating?

When you have a man preaching about how "ethnics" should be shown the metaphorical door, is it better to stifle his screams or suffer the piercing pain that is his opinion? Whilst Griffin's views may be controversial, should he be tried just for speaking his mind? And then, when a newspaper decides to print really, really awful cartoons depicting a religious prophet, is it right to censor them on the basis that they're just not funny to some people?

Whilst I may not be a huge fan of Danish cartoons and the BNP, I believe in many things which are open to ridicule (I'm not telling). This doesn't mean that people aren't allowed to disagree with or even mock me.

If we suddenly decide that nobody can poke fun at any religion, political parties or disagree with a particular individual, we're becoming dangerously close to putting a ban on expressing any ideology. Whilst an idea may mean the world to one person, it is always open to mockery by many others, a consequence of the diversity of the human race. Television shows such as South Park and The Simpsons are mostly hilarious because they exploit certain ideologies.

People can't seem to accept that everyone has the right to passively abuse other people's sentiments. Should religious folk be banned from saying that homosexuality is immoral? Should gays be banned from saying those religions are stupid? Should the BNP be trialled for calling immigrants names? Should I be arrested for calling the BNP names as a result? No.

Free expression allows us to freely insult one another and contradict one another's views. It would be a shame if satire were sacrificed just so that nobody would get offended and threaten to kill us all. It would certainly be a shame if extremist political parties were censored, just because they keep everyone on their toes. Besides, if nobody were allowed to freely express their opinions, their latent stupidity would never become obvious to the world. For example, those burning flags in response to the cartoons probably don't realise that, according to their views, they should probably boycott the internet before they start boycotting Danish products; it's full of more anti-Muslim sentiments than any one country will ever contain.

Unfortunately, not everybody can utilise expression respectably to counter opinions. Whilst it is within everybody's rights to protest against something which they find offensive, burning embassies and sporting placards threatening Europe with extermination, demolition and beheading is just slightly counterproductive, just as it would be silly to physically assault BNP members for their beliefs.

When faced with an offensive expression, the best we can do is to suppress reaction. Angry reactions just spark more publicity, as has been evident by both the pyromania due to the cartoons and the silliness that was the BNP race-hate trial. Publicity, of course, makes the world curious.

Perhaps the best use of your freedom is to occasionally choose not to express yourselves. If you ignore someone for long enough, they may eventually realise that nobody cares, nobody is listening and their opinions are worth sod all to the majority of the universe.

Skirts and T-shirts are 'un-Islamic'?

First published Sep 29th 2005

Islam has become a sensitive subject. That's rather unfortunate, because any celebrity who claims an affiliation with the religion will always be seen as a Muslim first and a human being second. And judged accordingly, usually by hardcore critics, who probably spend their spare time nitpicking petty details in the Qu'ran.

No sooner had tennis star Sania Mirza become the first Indian woman to enter the world top 50, the Sunni Ulema Board, an unfamiliar "Muslim" organisation in India, released a religious diktat demanding that she cover up during matches. Apparently, her skirts and T-shirts are "un-Islamic" and "corrupting".

I have to stress that these are random Muslim clerics, who nobody's ever heard of before. I'm not sure if they just wanted some publicity or are, indeed, just stupid.

Rather than praising her achievements, they've been chastising her for not dressing modestly. Of course, Muslim women are known for their conservative dress sense, and whether or not they need veiling is a debate I leave for Islamic Soc.

What worries me about the Sunni Ulema Board is that they don't appear to know the meaning of context. Context is the defining line between an extremist and a rational human being.

She's a tennis player, not a glamour model. She's wearing what she feels comfortable playing in ­ and that's her prerogative. It's pure overreaction, and for people who think women should be protected from manly gazes, they went totally the wrong way about it. All this media attention over what Sania Mirza wears does nothing but draw men to her more. Now they'll be looking at bits they never even noticed before. The majority of men, shock, horror, really did just watch Miss Mirza for the tennis before all of this hoo-hah.

My second issue is their lack of faith in their own religion. So she isn't following her religion to the letter, who does? Just because one person refuses to abide by the rules, doesn't mean everyone else will. Are they really convinced that Islam is so weak that it'll crumble because of one girl?
When those four boys came to London and blew up our transport system, everyone was adamant that we should not consider them Muslim, for their actions were not indicative of Islam as a religion.

So why is Sania Mirza treated as though she's the sole symbol of Islam? She's merely one girl wearing a skirt. It doesn't mean that the world will now view Muslim women as evil exhibitionists. If anything, she'll be idolised for her achievements. She'll attain a support that, sadly, her own community failed to give her.

The third strike by the board was to say that she's corrupting the "innocent" minds of young women. That, is a disgustingly presumptuous statement about all women. It implicitly states that women are sheep. "Oh dear, let me rip off my veil and run around in my birthday suit, inviting illicit sex, because that tennis player is showing her legs."

Furthermore, these so called "men of faith" have absolutely no confidence in the women of their society. I'll let you all in on a little secret: women are not robots; we're perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves.

I grew up on a road worked by a few prostitutes, but that never meant that I wanted to be one. People who are predisposed to brainwashing will get brainwashed. Those who aren't? They watch and learn and make up their own minds. It's called being an individual.