28 Jan 2010

Howard Zinn 1922-2010

Howard Zinn (author of A Peoples History of the United States) died yesterday.

Here's him a couple of weeks ago on Obama (from The Nation):

"I' ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.

As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican--as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people--and that's been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama's no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.

I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction."

27 Jan 2010

Boo Yah

Defrost Showdown - Day 4

No Ice - Nowhere to hide.

Following the great thaw, looters took the Stoli during the chaotic period. Whilst the sanitation of this small cold state has improved dramatically, this has caused a power vacuum.

Agamemnon's ability to blend in with his previously snowy surroundings enabled him to travel inconspicuously around the region, whilst the fanatical Tank could be spotted from way across the shelves, and sometimes between the levels.

Progress is not always smooth. Following the Great Defrost, Agamemnon discovered new sources of wealth that lay hidden, namely around 8 cans of Carling (not so much wealth as useful in emergencies), as well as half a bottle of cheap white wine, a bottle of tonic water, and a lone bottle of some alcopop, possibly from an era beyond anyone's memory. There was also a shrivelled lime.

Whilst Tank scored a victory for temperance in one section, Agamemnon has consolidated the resources elsewhere, and Tank does not like this. They met above salad tray...

25 Jan 2010

Secretive Bastards

I'd never made a Freedom of Information request before, so I thought I would approach the issues that matter, namely, how many records have not been played on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.

Never mind.

17 Jan 2010

The Great Defrost - Day 1

Following the recent cold snap, Agamemnon the Sheep recently decided that the time had come to defrost the freezer section of the little fridge, and hopefully rescue the bottle of Stoli vodka that has been frozen in time for around a year and a half. In this mission, time will be his friend, but the dangers do not only lay in the freezing conditions...

Tank is a Methodist with a chip on her shoulder. She believes that the Stoli being frozen is a good thing, and Agamemnon's quest for an ice-free freezer section will make him a hero, an thus lower Tank's status - who will win?

5 Jan 2010

Legend, Science and Science - Some Books

A few months back, I ended up pondering the true origins of Robin Hood, so a Medieval historian I know recommended that I read Robin Hood by J.C. Holt, which is a widely respected book on the subject with the sub-title 'People's hero or lawless marauder' although when I say it out loud, I like to add in 'talking fox' to the options as well.

Holt writes that the surest aspects of the tale of Robin Hood are based on 5 massively long poems, and one tiny bit of a play, and its from these that countless other stories are spun out. The essential bits being about archery, hiding in woods and either battling against or winning the king's favour.
Among the more satisfying things about Robin Hood that I learned were that

  • the nearer the stories get to Nottingham, the more likely they are to be balls, and the nearer to South Yorkshire, the more believable.
  • that Maid Marian was an 18th century invention derived from baudy French novels
  • pretty much everywhere named after Robin Hood have nothing to do with Robin Hood, and were cheap marketing ploys. And Little John's grave in Hathersage can be added to the unverifiable pile.
Another confusing element to the legend is the fact that so many people near the period when he was supposed to have lived had the same or similar name. One great example of the legend and name taking off was in 1498 when loads of armed blokes turned up pissed in Walsall demanding that some of their friends should be released from prison. At first, when the leader was arrested, he told the magistrate that his name was Robin Hood, and when that didn't work, tried on the story that what the army of armed blokes were actually doing was just a friendly May Day celebration. It didn't work.

Holt's book was entertaining but it was so scholarly that I almost felt too edified, less so with Pikhal by Alexander and Ann Shulgin.

Pihkal is story of both a chemical group and two people's lives. Alexander Shulgin was a chemist who spent a lot of time in pharmaceutical research, as well as working for major drug companies and consultancy work. Shulgin also developed a keen interest in the Phenylethlamine group of chemicals which include drugs such as MDMA as well as hundreds of others. He made a point of testing them on himself as well as consenting friends and 'researchers' and made sure that he kept detailed notes of their effects. The title stands for Phenylethlamines I Have Known And Loved, and each chapter has a combination of his life story tied in with scientific but accessible descriptions of his conclusions about various compounds.

The other 'voice' in the book is that of Ann Shulgin, and how she came to meet Alexander (or Shura as he is referred to). Ann's background was in Psychiatry, and both are credited with clinical use of substances like MDMA to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Much of ths work ended when many of the drugs came under schedule I status in the US.

I must admit that I didn't enjoy Ann's sections of the book as Alexanders, but that's probably because it becomes a bit more chick flick (love! jealousy! Am I fat and useless?! will he come round to loving me!?), and I preferred the more philosophical (and psychadelic) parts written by Alexander.

The second half of the weighty tome is actually an extensive appendix on all of Shulgin's experiments with phenylethlamines, as well as detailed methods on their production. Not surprisingly, many legal authorities are not too keen on the book.

The 83 year old Shulgin still has his blog 'Ask Dr Shulgin' to this day.

My brother bought me Bad Science by Ben Goldacre for christmas, which was good as I read his newspaper column every weekend, and secondly because I asked my brother to get it for me.

I can't credit Goldacre enough for having a writing style that engages humorously whilst managing to cram in an awful lot of detailed explanation of good and bad research methods. For an excellent primer in how journalism can be incapable of critically evaluating research, I would point to the chapters on the great MMR [non]scare and the AIDS 'denialists' making a career for themselves out of what can only be described as dangerous bullshit.

Its no surprise reading that homeopathy and Gillian McKeith are massive frauds, as is anyone else who describes themself as a 'nutritionist' - a meaningless title that Goldacre recommends everyone adopts in order to somewhat disarm those who apply it to themself with any kind of seriousness. These sections can only be described as first class hatchet jobs.

If it wasn't so funny and entertaining, it would just leave you with despair and anger, and I read enough to cause that anyway.