Category Archives: Commentary

Imperial College Union Votes to Rename Bars: #phase3

The Union is currently in the midst of a plan known as Phase 3 to modernise the Union’s bar and nightclub areas in place of the existing dBs and da Vinci’s to make them, y’know, actually decent places to have a night out. I will concede that da Vinci’s is alright, but dB’s is sorely in need of a refurbishment.

Anyways, the Union recently ran a competition to rename these new bars as part of the Phase 3 development, and they’ve just released the final shortlist of names, along with the opportunity to vote which names will be adopted for the new nightclub and bar.

Shortlist for the nightclub:

  • Iris
  • Lab
  • Metric
  • Neighbourhood
  • Theory

Shortlist for the bar:

  • Consort
  • Crown & Shield
  • Library
  • Quad

Now, I will be the first to admit that I did not submit any possible names; mostly this is because I’m ludicrously terrible at naming things. If I ever have children they’re probably going to be named by pasting pages from a baby name book onto a wall, then chucking darts until one strikes a name I like the sound of.

However, somebody at the Union seriously screwed up when they picked this shortlist. Some of the names are just plain terrible and others have the rather more significant problem that the collide with names of places already on campus; the most egregious example here is “Library”, which will have the rather unfortunate effect of making the sentences “Let’s meet at the Library” or “Let’s eat at the Library” ambiguous. I cannot possibly fathom how the brief enjoyment of a moment of irony derived from drinking in a bar called the Library could possibly outweigh the continuing irritation this could well generate for years and years.

“Quad” is broken for the same reason, although to a lesser extent. “Crown & Shield”, presumably drawn from the crown logo of the RCSU and the shield of the CGCU, is basically a massive fuck-you to the miners and the medics, the latter of which needs no further alienation from the rest of IC; it also makes it sound like a pub, which the new bar will not be, the pub niche is filled very well by the Union Bar.

The only half-decent name there is “Consort”, presumably drawn from the Prince Consort Road on which the Union sits, which possesses the fairly unique quality amongst the rest of actually sounding like a bar as well as being vaguely appropriate.

The names for the nightclub are mostly just plain awful. “Lab” is another unfortunate collision. The only decent one there is “Metric”, as you can tell by it being the runaway leader in the polling up to this point.

Speaking of the polling, it is rather severely flawed by the lack of an option to vote RON (re-open nominations) , something which is usually a central part of Union democracy. One wonders if President Ashley Brown‘s experience fighting the battle for election against RON left him with a grudge.

I jest, I jest. He’s been very good in engaging with the dialogue about this on Twitter, and that’s pretty damn admirable.

Anyway, I would suggest scrapping this poll altogether and starting a new one from scratch before this one is allowed to run on too long. Most people I’ve spoken to about these names share my opinion that they’re terrible. All I can say is, I don’t want to see this become a presidential election issue when the presidential candidates publish their election manifestos for next year. I can’t imagine anything quite as ignominious for the current president as to have his successor immediately strike down the voted-for Phase 3 names chosen under his stewardship.

Anyway, as the poll probably isn’t going to be called off, go here and vote for the least bad options. Thank you.

An Outlet for Possibly Misplaced Rage

The door in the library cafe this post is about.
See that little sign? MOST PEOPLE CAN'T.

Today, somebody nearly opened a door into me.

This was immensely irritating for two reasons:

  1. This door is made of glass. Not frosted glass, either, but honest to goodness clear window glass. You have to be a really extreme species of troglodyte to not see somebody on the other side of a goddamn glass door.
  2. This door has a sign next to it saying it’s not an exit. Furthermore, it has a sign on it saying that it shouldn’t be used as an exit. People go ahead and use it as an egress anyway. To express my rage at this I’m sadly going to have to break out of the confines of this numbered list.

Ah, that’s better. Anyway, if there’s something I absolutely fucking hate it’s when people decide that instructions like that are not for them;  people who commit such hubris, who believe that such instructions are for somebody else, not somebody wonderful and important like themselves.

Get the fuck over yourselves and spend the damned thirty seconds walking the long way around.

Oh, and what’s worse is when bottom-feeding scumbags use that door and then not close it after themselves, letting in a continual draft of glacial air. Pack of absolute selfish twats.

To  the transgressors I say this:

You are not special. You are not important. Your time is not more important or more special than mine. You do not have the right to decide that rules do not apply to you in order to satiate your own laziness.

Oh, and look where you’re fucking going! There’s a fucking pavement on the other side of that door!

Bring me a dream…

Sandman_Preludes

I had heard over the proverbial grapevine that The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman (writer of the films Stardust and Coraline) was an excellent graphic novel, so on one of my regular visits to the fantastic geek-Mecca that is Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue I picked up the first volume, then the second on my next visit, and then the third.

Then I just gave up trying to space them out and bought the whole remainder of the series from Amazon, and devoured them within a few days.

It’s one of the most astonishing, wonderful, imaginative, collection of tales I have ever read. To (probably mis)quote one of the introductions, “If this isn’t literature, nothing is.”

The central figure (I would say protagonist, but often he isn’t) is Dream, Lord of the Dreaming, Prince of stories; the very personification of the act of dreaming itself. The idea of dreams is at the very heart of The Sandman – the tales are often fantastical and nonsensical, but at the same time have a truth to them, a resonance that’s undeniable. There’s horror and humour, profundity and absurdity.

Neil Gaiman is the kind of person whose writing both simultaneously makes me want and not want to become a writer; his tales are so fantastic that it makes you fall in love with story-telling, but simultaneously despair that you would never be able to arrange words as wonderfully and as eloquently as he, or touch on so many themes, or make such excellent historical and mythological illusions, or have so many dazzling ideas.

The story has an overall arc and theme, summarised by Gaiman himself as: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Twisted alongside that main tale are squabbles with his family the Endless, his brother and sister personifications, e.g. his older brother Destiny, older sister Death, and the particularly antagonistic Desire, who is simultaneously male and female and the tales of the lesser beings who come into contact with Dream and the rest of the Endless, like the cat who dreams and learns that once cats ruled the world before the dreams of men revised history, or the man in the Middle Ages who learns how to live forever, and meets Dream once a century for a drink in the same pub, or the Roman emperor Augustus who is told to pretend to be a marketplace beggar once a year.

The writing I literally could not have more effusive praise for; it is utterly magnificent. However, this being a graphic novel, writing is only half the story, which is part of the wonderful richness of the medium; there’s the art.

Sandman _50 Ramadan Gaiman Klein Russell This being a very long series there are a number of different artists who’ve worked on this series, so there might well be some you enjoy, some you won’t. There are some incredibly standouts; the work of P. Craig Russel in the story “Ramadan” is breathtakingly wonderful, for instance. Overall, they do a really good job of embodying the strange world of Dream.

I really couldn’t recommend The Sandman highly enough. Anybody who knows me can ask and I’ll lend you the first volume. Or second or third, and the stand-alone set of stories, Endless Nights; alas, that’s all I have with me.

All that remains to be said is that I really, really want Neil Gaiman to write an episode of Doctor Who. He’s British, he’s a fantastic writer, it needs to happen.

Concerning Drugs

I realise I’m now a little behind the curve on this story, this has been sitting in my drafts for a while.

The government recently sacked Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) after he spoke out on the scientific evidence on the relative harm of illegal drugs like cannabis and ecstasy compared with legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco.

He’s previously been criticised in the press for an examination of the public view of risk of two activities, taking ecstasy and horse-riding (which he calls, for hilarious effect, “equasy”). The public reaction made him sound like he was making an insane comparison, but his argument is well backed up by the evidence. Don’t take my word for it though, you can read his actual paper (don’t worry, it’s not very long!) here.

This time round, Nutt made the not-unreasonable point that looking at the actual harm done, alcohol and tobacco are worse than ectasy, LSD and cannabis, so our current policy at looks at best somewhat hypocritical.

This view, like his view on equasy, is based upon a synthesis of the available scientific evidence, not opinion or political whim. However according though to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, this isn’t a dry statement of the facts, but instead consitutues an attack on the Government’s policy on drugs, an act incompatible with his position as a Government advisor; this seems to me to be a statement of an implicit definition: a Government advisor is only someone who adds an air of authority to whatever it is the Government wants them to say.

This is a ridiculous attack on intellectual and academic freedom, evidence-based policy, and indeed upon science itself. The Government has decided that objective evidence has no place in public policy; they are concerned only with receiving a “scientific” rubber-stamp on what they think will play the best with voters and the tabloid press.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a hypocritcal notion of moral certainty has long dominated public drug policy; we are lead to believe that it is somehow intrinsically morally wrong to consume illegal drugs. I would say that it is more plainly obvious that the social harm we are told is caused by drugs is in fact caused more by the prohibition of drugs than it is by the effects of the drugs themselves.

Prohibition forces supply and manufacture into the hands of organised criminals who make vast profits delivering sub-standard goods. Look at the example of American prohibition of alchohol, which did nothing but embolden and enrich the gangsters and the Mafia, not to mention compounding the problem of alcoholism by resistricting the availability of weaker drinks like beer and wine in favour of the more easily transportable and strong spirits.

Likewise the prohibition of drugs encourages more powerful drug variants like skunk cannabis and crack cocaine and encourages dealers to cut their products with additives to make the same product go further. The vastly inflated prices encourage crime and enrich criminals, and the underground nature of the whole business discourages addicts from seeking help.

Legalised drugs could be taxed and regulated, like we do with cigarettes and alcohol today, which would bring in a revenue stream that could be reinvested in tackling addiction and the health consequences of drugs. It would ensure that drugs are clean and free of dangerous impurities. It would prevent people being tempted to try stronger drugs like crack or heroin by corrupt dealers offering a free hit to get people hooked.

It would certainly be an infinitely saner and more evidence-based policy than the one dominated by hypocritical moralising we have today. Alas, no politician can ever been seen to be “soft on drugs” so our current failing policy will remain.

Why Ubuntu / Linux isn’t Really Ready for Consumers… Yet.

Update: Hey Reddit! This post has much nastier things to say about Ubuntu than the one below, so I think you’ll like it more. No, I’m not a Microsoft astroturfer. Wish I was though, I wouldn’t mind the money. Honestly, I want to like Ubuntu / Linux in general. This is why I tried Ubuntu again after it sucking the first time, and why I bought an Eee PC running a Xandros variant without even considering putting XP on it. But you guys don’t make it easy.

As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I’ve recently been trying to install Ubuntu on my desktop.

On the whole it’s not that painful, the LiveCD lets you get a feel for the system, the installation is mostly painless even if you want to dual-boot etc, the interface is clean and easy to use, almost everything you’d ever want is already installed and almost anything else is available from the package manager. It’s great when it works. Really great.

The trouble is, often it doesn’t. For example the wireless card on this machine seems to have issues. Sometimes it won’t connect to a wireless network, sometimes it totally hangs the machine. The solution to this seems to be to dive in head-first into config files and the command-line, rip out the provided open source driver, and whack in a layer that will let me use a Windows driver.

My first attempt to do this just disabled wireless on the machine entirely, which wasn’t a forward step. I was honestly quite lucky to get it back to where I started from.

Software support can also sometimes be iffy. Stuff that should be simple like Adobe Air seemingly requires a trip through the terminal to convince to work. Another rather significant downside is that a lot of applications you’re used to using don’t have versions for Linux. You can use WINE to get Windows applications working, mostly, but it’s not an ideal state of affairs. And you can forget about playing games; support is even more dire than Mac gaming. That is unless you once again want to press WINE into service; frankly though it feels slightly iffy running Spotify, let alone TF2.

So my point here is three-fold:

  1. Hardware support is patchy.
  2. Proprietary software can be hard to get working / unavailable.
  3. If something goes wrong, it requires a lot of scary stuff (command-line, etc.) to fix.

See, I’m sure that if I had a working machine and a few months I’d start to learn the Linux-fu necessary to deal with this, but it’s just a pain if something as essential as Wi-Fi doesn’t just work, or if you can’t play your favourite games.

They’ve got a long way to go with hardware support, and it’s going to be an uphill battle every step of the way. There’s a lot of hardware manufacturers who aren’t going to provide Linux drivers, and there’s a dogmatic craziness in the Linux world that THOU SHALT NOT distribute non-free drivers with your distribution, which means that nobody just provides Windows drivers, or makes it easy to get Windows drivers. It’s totally daft, and it’s not helped by nutjobs like Richard Stallman. I guess you can put me into the camp who doesn’t like the GPL. Give me the BSD license any day.

The software difficulties are as equally hard to overcome; you’d have to deal with the horrible Balkanisation of the Linux distros for one thing so that people would have something simple to compile binaries against. Idealism isn’t going to get people to give away the source code to everything.

However, there’s certainly a market for Ubuntu / Linux systems where you can be sure of the hardware configuration and fix all the problems in advance. This means that something like eeebuntu works really rather well, and is supported rather better than Asus managed to support the Eee themselves. It’s a pleasure to use, and makes me see myself using my Eee a lot more in the future.

Similarly, if all the software you could ever want, literally, is encompassed by the repositories of your chosen distro, then it’s also a very comfortable experience where you can be reasonably sure that everything will just work, which is literally the ideal consumer experience.

So, if you lie within some narrow definition of “consumer” then Ubuntu is going to be perfect for you. If you lie just a little to the edges, it’s going to suck. There’s really no middle ground between “idealised consumer” and “pretty hardcore techie”. I guess that’s why they’re going to carry on working with it. If they can expand that consumer window, this could be heading somewhere.

Reading: Part 3 – Slaughterhouse-Five

I must make a confession: I read this book in one go from start to finish, and I’m fairly convinced that it’s a triumph. So I’m making a note here. Great success? </lameportaljoke>

The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former (well, sort of, you’ll see) prisoner of war who has become unstuck in time. His consciousness flicks about through his life, from his experiences being captured at the Battle of the Bulge through to the firebombing of Dresden, his abduction by aliens, the moment of his death, and every moment in-between.

It’s also semi-autobiographical, as Vonnegut makes a point of mentioning that he was also present during the war, and many of the details of Billy’s life match the author’s own biography.

The book is a meditation on death, time, war, of the correlations between moments “stuck in amber”. It’s such a great book that I feel inadequate to be reviewing it, because I don’t have the tools to fully appreciate what has been done.

The little touches are incredible – the book follows the story of Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the war, interrupted by the random splinters of the rest of his life, and it’s filled with echoes of other moments, phrases repeated, evocative symmetries.

Every time someone dies, or death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” is repeated, focusing your mind on the death itself. The book enumerates the cruelties of the war, men glorifying and justifying the firebombing, or soap and candles made from the fat of dead Jews and gays and gypsies.

It is at once a condemnation of war and an admission that war is inevitable, that death will be dealt by natural causes, or an act of revenge, by atomic bomb or by firebomb, but that death will always be there, waiting at the end of our allotted years, our single thread spun out across eternity; we just have to think of the nice parts of the thread.

I feel almost compelled to compare this book with Illium; partly because they are at least nominally in the same genre. There is honestly no comparison. Illium wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve as a badge of honour; Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literature in its own right, not a trashy space-opera with illusions of grandeur.

Reading: Part 2 – Why I am not a Christian

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m an atheist. As a group, we’re on the ascendency; we’re putting ads onto buses, we got a shout-out from Obama in his inauguration speech, and Britain is becoming every more secularised.

We’re a challenge to the old order; the notion that religion makes for a moral being, that adherence to a creed and heirarchy without evidence, in spite of evidence, is the only path to virtue.

This, of course, means that atheists have a lot of enemies, particularly in the States. More people would vote for a homosexual, Muslim, Mormon, or female candidate for the Presidency than would vote for an atheist. If you don’t regularly go to a church, or mosque, or synagogue, you can forget about being President. I’d like to believe less people in Britain would care about the religion of the Prime Minister (although “anyone but Brown” seems to be the more salient concern).

You also inevitably get those people who think they’ve got you in a corner when they suggest that atheism is intellectually dishonest, and that it’s a faith as bad as the ones we protest against.

Which brings us neatly around to Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of an idea known as “Russell’s teapot”. It can be summarised (courtesy of the fine fellows who edit Wikipedia) as follows:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

It’s a wonderful piece of intellectual ammunition, and it’s one of the reasons I like to read books by people like Lord Russell and Prof. Dawkins.

The book I have lately read is a collection of short essays on various subjects, leading with the titular Why I am not a Christian but with other topics too, such as sexual ethics and academic freedom, as well as an appendix detailing the witch-hunt which prevented Lord Russell from taking up an academic position at a New York college.

It was an immensely enjoyable read, and refreshing in the wonderful way that all works of great intellectual achievement are. The feeling of another’s fantastic thoughts running through your own brain are incredible, and it’s a damned good reason why I should really read more philosophy.

I felt like his musings on why he wasn’t a Christian were probably amongst the material that inspired Dawkins, and so the arguments there are familiar, if brought to a higher polish by Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.

I found the sections on sexual ethics to be particularly interesting because for the time he was writing they would have been extremely controversial, and they remain so today. He raises the points that sexual taboos are unhealthy, and that the sexual instinct should not be as repressed as it is in our society. It was actually a shock to me that in contemplating his ideas I discovered some of my own unreasonable prejudices and indoctrinations. A profound re-orientation of sexual ethics around the principles of reason would probably be very healthy.

In light of this, I’m probably in the near future going to buy something like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, because I do find the question of feminism really rather interesting. She’s also an existentialist, which I like a lot.

All in all this is a very interesting collection of essays that’s well worth reading, especially if you’re not sure what it is you believe. I just have to say I would rather be on the side of people like Russell than many religious people.

If you haven’t already, go back to Part 1 – Illium.

Coming soon, Part 3 – Slaughterhouse 5.