Thursday 6 November 2014

John Betjeman by Martin Jennings (St Pancras)

I love this sculpture so much, I'm probably going to start going out of my way to look at it. You know, compared to the stereotypes of the adjoining Meeting Place sculpture, the wind lifting this rather individually shapen poet's coat and nearly blowing his hat away while he gazes up in wonder are what actually captures the romance of travel. My spirits lift just looking at him. He also has every right to a nice sculpture in St Pancras station:
Betjeman was one of the most energetic figures who, in the 1960s, fought the destruction of St Pancras - mercifully unthinkable today, now that public taste has softened towards George Gilbert Scott's marvellously elaborate neo-Gothic station buildings and old Midland Grand Hotel. "He didn't save it singlehandedly, but it certainly wouldn't have happened without him," said Andrew Motion, one of Betjeman's successors as poet laureate.

Somehow, though, I'd missed out on his efforts a poet until now. Now I've discovered him, I find he has that mix of spirituality and prosaic-ness that's typically British. When I learned he liked the ghost stories of M. R. James, I looked to see if he'd written any ghost poems and discovered A Shropshire Lad, about the homecoming of the ghost of Captain Webb, swimmer of the English Channel, who died while attempting to swim through the rapids under Niagara Falls. It even works quite well as a folk song:

The Meeting Place at St Pancras by Paul Day

Wow! The Meeting Place is certainly quite a monumental and instantly impressive piece of work. Apparently, its been quite a controversial piece (which one hasn't). I feel reasonably positive about it, although I don't think it had quite the effect on me that the artist intended. In this interview, given when the sculpture was unveiled, he says:
One (idea) was the embracing couple under a clock at a railway station; something that can be universally recognised as a symbol of travel is the couple being reunited. The clock becomes a moon at night. There is a sense of reunification. That had the romantic element.
And also:
The figures themselves, I wanted them to be outside of race and outside of time.
I'm not sure I can convince myself the figures are outside of race, but never mind. They're certainly not outside of time - fashion being what it is, that's just impossible. Imagine them in Edwardian costume and you'll see what I mean. And how many women dress like that now? These two are definitely of the 20th century and something about them - maybe it's the plinth - makes me think more of separation than reunification. They seem so closely associated with all those iconic images of soldiers going off to war. Will he ever return? At the moment of the kiss, there is hope of course, but also fear.

That's why the sculpture initially struck me as more serious than the artist perhaps intended. After I read Day's interview, the male and female figures had a tendency to remind me of the stereotypical Him & Her you get on the top of wedding cakes or on musical boxes. I can understand people not being happy with something that big and that chintzy, whereas a memorial to the impact of politics and warfare on romance... I still like it okay, but I prefer my version and really, I like the plinth best of all.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Dirk Gently's St Pancras Railway Station

By some miracle, I'm ahead of schedule with NaNoWriMo, even though it is the worstest, paltriest, most ludicrous writing I've ever done in my life. I rewarded myself by going on  mini exploration in London, specifically of St Pancras Railway Station, which until now I knew only through its description in Douglas Adams' The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul:
     On the west side of St Pancras Street, just a few yards north of the Euston Road, a flight of steps leads up to the forecourt of the old Midland Grand Hotel, the huge, dark gothic fantasy of a building which stands, empty and desolate, across the front of St Pancras railway station.
     Over the top of the steps, picked out in gold letters on wrought-iron-work, stands the name of the station. Taking his time, Dirk followed the last of the band of old tramps and derelicts up these steps, which emerged just to the side of a small, squat, brick building which was used as a car park. To the right, the great dark hulk of the old hotel spread off into the night, its roofline a vast assortment of wild turrets, gnarled spires and pinnacles which seemed to prod at and goad the night sky.
     High in the dim darkness, silent stone figures stood guard behind long shields, grouped around pilasters behind wrought-iron railings. Carved dragons crouched gaping at the sky as Dirk Gently, in his flapping leather coat, approached the great iron portals which led to the hotel, and to the great vaulted train shed of St Pancras station. Stone figures of winged dogs crouched down from the top of the pillars.

     Here, in the bridged area between the hotel entrance and the station booking hall, was a large unmarked grey Mercedes van. A quick glance at the front of it was enough to tell Dirk that it was the same one which had nearly forced him off the road several hours earlier in the Cotswolds.
     Dirk walked into the booking hall, a large space with great panelled walls long which were spaced fat marble columns in the form of torch holders.
At this time of night, the ticket office was closed - trains do not run all night from St Pancras - and beyond it the vast chamber of the station itself, the great Victorian train shed, was shrouded in darkness and shadow.
    Dirk stood quietly secluded in the entrance to the booking hall and watched as the old tramps and bag ladies, who had entered the station by the main entrance from the forecourt mingled together in the dimness. There were now many more than two dozen of them, perhaps as many as a hundred, and there seemed to be about them and air of repressed excitement and tension.

 And one by one they disappear, until finally Dirk Gently is left all alone in the middle of the great, dark, empty railway station.
    A gust of wind blew through the huge vaults of the empty station and nearly provoked in Dirk a great howl of frustration at the trail that had so suddenly gone cold on him. The cold moonlight draped itself through the long ranges of glass panels that extended the length of St Pancras station roof.
    It fell on empty rails, and illuminaed them. It fell on the train departures board, it fell on the sign which explained that today was a Blue Saver Day and illuminated them both.
    Framed in the archway formed by the far end of the vaulted roof were the fantastical forms of five great gasometers, the supporting superstructures of which seemed in their adumbrations to be tangled impossibly with each other, like the hoops of an illusionists conjuring trick. The moonlight illuminated these as well, but Dirk it did not illuminate.

It's still sort of like that except that in the sunlight it's all glowing amber brick and sparkling crystal roof, beautifully renovated and serenely focused rather than hectic (for a station before lunchtime, and one that is now host to the fastest train out of Britain). The booking hall has become a bar of the same name, there is a chic shopping arcade in the lower concourse and a couple of nice sculptures. I would love to stay in what's now known as the Renaissance Hotel, just so I can see what it's like inside. Which is kind of a crazy thing to want to do when you live in London already.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Specious mathematical encouragement for NaNoWriMoers

So I just did an experiment to see how fast I can churn words out, so long as I'm not being at all particular about the quality of said words. And the answer is:
  • 39 words per minute or 2337 words per hour
To be honest, I wasn't even trying hard. I kept taking sips of coffee, then using up my word count by moaning about how cold it was getting. But never mind that. These figures mean it should be possible - again, being totally unfussy about content and quality, to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November in any of the following ways:
  • by investing a couple of hours every Saturday and Sunday (+ a little bit)
  • by spending 45 minutes writing for each of thirty days
  • by giving the task one hour for every day of the working week
That all sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it? Doesn't it????

Okay, so the problem is that I would like to have something usable at the end of all this, not a bunch of disjointed garbage interrupted with coffee rants.

Monday 20 October 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

I must be nuts... novel #1, The American Dream is so nearly finished, I've signed up to scribble out the first draft of #2, The Darkness of the Heart in just 30 days. I've had about three attempts at NaNoWriMo and never won once. I am living proof that not winning at NaNo doesn't mean you'll never finish a book.

To make matters more embarrassing, those attempts were at times when my husband and daughter used to repair to America for Thanksgiving in the last two weeks of November, leaving me at home for my annual holiday. Trouble was, I used to spend the two weeks catching up on a whole year's exercise, sleep, R&R, miscellaneous projects, larger household maintenance and DIY.

This year, all I have to deal with is the rear end of a half term holiday and four weeks of the usual chaos of home life in London. Or, I could skive off to France just like old times. I haven't decided yet.

At least this year I have a plan even if it's not a very good one. I have a vague idea what is happening in Book #2, especially at the beginning and the end. I also know I run about 1000-2000 words to a writing session. So, I opened Scrivener, created files for 30 key scenes and that's it! What will happen in them, and how they'll eventually connect together is anyone's guess.

The other part of my plan involves finding time to write one of them every day. Even with total stream of consciousness stuff, I don't see this taking less than two hours. I also know that once I've finished a scene, I'll be drained for the day as far as that kind of creative work is concerned, so my plan is actually quite vulnerable. I'd be better off aiming for 25 scenes at 2000 words each, wouldn't I?

Okay, now I'm off to write a synopsis for a story that doesn't exist yet. Anyone else writing a novel next month?

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Gyrth Russell's Yorkshire Coast Mystery Tour

Sometimes I like to know I still have my hand in on the art historical research front. I got a little practical test yesterday evening because a member of my family wanted to find out which bit of the Yorkshire Coast is represented in the British Railways advertising poster below, by Canadian-born artist Gyrth Russell.

We are Yorkshire coast-goers ourselves, but we tend more towards Scarborough. My aunt on the other side of the family prefers the more northerly villages and placed this as 'Staithes with poetic license' immediately. I came to the same conclusion but I had to do it the hard way. I'd correlated the hilliness and that particular style of architecture with the northern part of Yorkshire but after that, I was checking old photographs and paintings of every town or village between Staithes and Bridlington, not that there's lots of them. I was especially looking for that particular lifeboat station (I went through the list from the RNLI), that breakwater and that very noticeable blue house. Staithes had the best match for all those things, though it looks to me like Gyrth Russell rearranged the scene pretty freely, based on the contents of his sketchbook. Here's a realistic watercolour he made with the 'blue' house in it.

And here's Staithes harbour in the 1940s, before the breakwater was built. The lifeboat station appears to have been on the other side of the estuary even then.

Okay, so it took me a couple of hours to accomplish through research what probably took my aunt five seconds, but it was fun. Lots of Russell's other BR posters have specific place names on them. In this case, I suppose he thought he'd improvised a bit too freely to get away with it.

The Water Bearer, by Lorna Simpson

I've been aware of Lorna Simpson's The Water Bearer for some time, but I saw it 'in person' as it were, in Newcastle this June. Once seen, it isn't forgotten, even in a room of works by the same artist, in a similar style. But what about the interpretation? What I really like about this piece is that you can 'get it' with a minimum of context, but the more you know, the more it gives.

I found the title and caption had strong but rather imprecise associations. The title reminded me of the star-sign Aquarius and the importance (and danger) of fetching water in the European folk cultures I grew up with. I thought there might be something in the Bible. I couldn't pin it down to anything precise, but I got the general message: something bad happened by a river and the black female witness's testimony was discounted. I hadn't seen this discounting of black testimony as the central problem of racism in the American justice system today, but I was aware it was a problem. I remember the way the witness in the Trayon Martin case was treated and how her appearance and accent were used to dismiss what she had to say. I thought Lorna Simpson's photograph might relate to a specific incident in American affairs which I wasn't aware of.

This American reviewer is also vague on the classical context of the piece but she associated water bearing with labor, the lion's share of which she recognized as being done by African-Americans in her culture. So she also ended up 'getting the message' in a broad sense.


What's really cool about The Water Bearer is that the more you delve into its associations, the more you get out. I didn't know until I did some research for this post that the classical Aquarius myth concerned the death of a young man named Hyas. This fragment is from Ovid's Fasti:
When the down was new on his cheeks, he scared away
The frightened deer, in terror, and a hare was a good prize.
But when his courage had grown with his years, he dared
To close with wild boar and shaggy lionesses,
And while seeking the lair of a pregnant lioness, and her cubs,
He himself was the bloodstained victim of that Libyan beast.
His mother and his saddened sisters wept for Hyas,
And Atlas, soon doomed to bow his neck beneath the pole,
But the sisters’ love was greater than either parent’s:
It won them the heavens: Hyas gave them his name.
In the 1980s Simpson made several pieces about the vulnerability of black men to violence, often from individuals or a society which claims it's defending itself. The theme could hardly be more current in 2014. The Aquarius myth says Hyas was torn apart by wild animals and his sisters grieved for him which earned them a place as the star cluster called the Hyades. The Water Bearer feels like a very grieving kind of piece, in a way that's both cathartic and limited. In Ancient Greek culture, mourning was one of the few public roles allowed to women. The Hyas myth and its original social context feed into the meaning of the piece in quite poignant ways. African American culture (including expressions of grief or anger at injustices) is influential on an international scale but actual social and economic justice and equality seem to advance at snail's pace.

Lucas Cranach's Justice
via Wikimedia Commons

I gather some viewers automatically associate The Water Bearer with the figure of Justice. I didn't, but the guide at Newcastle drew my attention to the resemblance, and she'd apparently had it straight from Lorna Simpson a few days earlier. Once she'd pointed it out to me, it did seem kind of obvious.

Here again, The Water Bearer can derive a lot of reliable meaning from comparison with a familiar archetype. Every detail - the black woman with her back to us, instead of a white woman facing us (sometimes blindfolded), the simple dress instead of the classical drapery, the lack of a weapon - is up for interpretative grabs. Most importantly, nobody could miss the allegation of injustice, and almost anyone will respond to that.

I thought the iconic qualities of The Water Bearer and its many layers of meaning were as rewarding as they were unforgettable. Not that I'd failed to notice the string of current affairs incidents and statistics revealing racial inequalities in law enforcement and justice, but The Water Bearer pulls them together and focuses them in the way art should.

Sunday 12 October 2014

In which British military intelligence promotes skepticism in Ireland by lying about black magic

Richard Jenkins has just published a book, Black Magic and Bogeymen, showing how a British military intelligence division deliberately fabricated evidence of black magic and satanism for the purpose of social control and to vilify Irish paramilitary organisations.

The tactics seem to have involved:
  1. Tapping into pre-existing beliefs in the local population. Without this vulnerability to exploit, the attempt would have come across as merely comical.
  2. Planting false evidence of witchcraft or satanist events and rituals. In itself, this is little better than schoolkid pranking, but they were able to back it with authority (see below).
  3. Leaking false stories of black magic or satanic rituals or beliefs to the press. I suppose they were able to get away with this because the press treated them as a trustworthy source, and the public were willing to trust the press!

    There's a moral here: certainly, these are slanderous, exploitative means and I doubt they justify the end, but until such time as they can be curtailed, skepticism seems like the only defense.

PS: It's sad that having had its five minutes of fame, Black Magic and Bogeymen has quite a few accessibility faults: it's expensive, there are no previews and no electronic versions. I think I'd rather enjoy reading it if some of that could be fixed.

Other stories about malicious fabrication of supernatural incidents:

In which Pastor Ezeugwu uses an angel to promote witchcraft belief in Nigeria.

How not to debunk an idea

Warning: this is a rant and consequently, it has a nasty tendency not to follow its own advice.

A certain number of articles I've read over the past year or so have annoyed the hell out of me. They have ideas to debunk, and their modus operandi is as follows:
  1. Spend 80% of the article telling the readers what the author imagines they think.
    a) often get it wrong as far as many people are concerned,
    b) often focus on out-of-date or eccentric ideas, espoused only by those who are ignorant of the subject.
  2. Then spend 20% of the article telling the readers why they're wrong.
This is a bad idea, worse than that, it's probably a cover for writers who need to make copy. Or even worse, it's just a form of super-trolling. At best, it's egocentric and lazy: anyone who can't quote an individual, publication or statistic in support of what they imagine 'everyone' thinks may well be the only one thinking it*. Let's face it, if an idea is truly universal, writers don't need to dwell on it. If most people believe the Earth is roughly spherical and someone wants to present exciting new evidence that it's actually cylindrical, why waste words on telling 'everyone' how wrong they are for having thought it was flat? Debunking for fun and profit is an excellent venture, but it doesn't sit easily alongside the promotion of new ideas. 

There are actually some very good reasons for this. Linking a belief, perhaps a loosely or unconsciously held one, with a reader's sense of self makes it harder for them to change their mind - although linking a belief which is probably false with any social group the reader may identify with (by religion, race, nationality, etc.) is worse. In fact it's such a stupidly ineffective thing to do that words fail me!** It strongly encourages readers to associate themselves with, and defend, the belief the writer has just proposed to them, rather than consider the evidence for the new one. At best, they are likely to find the writer manipulative and obsessive. The most effective way to introduce people to a new belief is to draw as little attention as possible to any contradictory ones they may hold. If this results in them experiencing a little cognitive dissonance, writers had best come over all discreet and let them deal with that by themselves. It's an inevitable part of the change process.

So much for readers who do hold a belief to some extent. Readers who don't may justifiably feel their intelligence and/or education has been insulted. Alternatively, they may take the writer to be ignorant and lose their respect for him or her. Or, if they're the nasty type, they may feel encouraged in their sense of superiority towards all those other pitiful readers who have allegedly bought into the debunked idea***. In all of these cases, the debunker's writing is the epitome of what the word 'divisive' means and being divisive for the lulz makes the perpetrator a troll and a waste of space.


* Laziness and vague quoting of sources: at least the phrase 'a certain number of articles' doesn't imply they all do this. Nor does it posit writing such articles as the systematic behavior of any individual or class of persons. I may start naming and shaming individual cases at some point if I feel like it, but in the meantime, if you haven't noticed any, feel free to assume I have a bee in my bonnet.

** More laziness and lack of proper evidential support: as even Wikipedia would say, 'citation needed'. I'm pretty certain citations are available but I couldn't be bothered to find any right now.

*** If you don't fall into one of the four or five categories of reader enumerated here, this just isn't about you okay? Perhaps it just means you're not a real reader anyway, have you thought of that? Maybe you should just consider yourself lucky I didn't write this post as though you were practically bound to be the wrong sort of writer. In fact, I avoided writing most of it in the second person altogether, but I ran out of self-control by the time I reached this footnote.

Friday 10 October 2014

The CEO of Microsoft brings us magical thinking on how to get a raise

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has just made himself famous by responding to a question about how women should ask for raises thusly:
It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. 
Sadly, Nadella reveals the all too common belief that he lives in a social system which is inherently and basically fair, barring exceptional abuses. Despite the fact this is probably a fundamentally human psychological response, shared by those it serves and those it penalises, no idea could be easier to call into question. A look through any history book will show that fair social systems are far from being the norm. It's rather incumbent on a system which considers itself the exception to prove its case. Here, it seems doubtful, and Nadella's remarks add to my suspicions for reasons I'll explain below. We're not finished with his superstitions yet:

To make matters worse, Nadella enjoins others, especially the likeliest victims of unfairness to inaction by referring to a spiritual belief about the self-correcting properties of social systems:
Not asking for raise, he added, was “good karma” that would help a boss realise the employee could be trusted and should have more responsibility.

It doesn't really matter whether he means 'karma' in the Hindu sense of the word or the Californian New Age sense because either way, no such thing exists - our social systems are not self-correcting, people don't automatically get what they deserve, and in this case, it isn't 'the system' which hands out rewards, it's people*. People like Nadella who make discretionary choices.

Taking Nadella at face value, one leaps to the conclusion that as a boss, he has a distaste for obvious ambition in his staff. He prefers employees of all genders to patiently do their assigned jobs to the best of their abilities, while he observes them and singles out the cream of the crop for promotion. If they seem too 'grabby', he has said, he will be disinclined to trust them and it's easy to imagine he might pass them over for promotion on those grounds.

So what are ambitious female employees left with? Pure faith that Nadella will not overlook them because not one fibre of his being fails to envisage women as normal and natural managers of divisions or future CEOs!!

Well... I would hate to hold him to a standard few have attained, but in any case, it's just so unusual to hear the CEO of an IT company decrying ambition. I would love to get into an alternate universe, find Nadella and ask him unawares how men should ask for a pay rise... or employees in general. I'm finding it rather difficult to have faith that I would have got the same answer. I suspect pushy women make Nadella uncomfortable whereas un-pushy women will indeed go unnoticed.

* On the other hand, I sincerely believe that where the Windows operating system is concerned, our society has got exactly what it deserves. I admit that whenever it crashes, my personal karma must be the cause, since there has never seemed to be any other good reason.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Fantasy fiction about the founding of London

These days, cities usually get destroyed in fantasy novels. I don't know what that says about us, but back in the old days, people were far more concerned to make up implausible but honorable myths about their cities' foundation. Although it's called The History of the Kings of Britain, one book, written in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is, well, frankly made up. Or possibly based on some traditional folklore and legends as well as earlier versions of some stories also told in the obscure Historia Brittonum.

Monmouth says that round about 1100 BC, a mythical Trojan named Brutus, descendant of the equally legendary Aeneas, brought a fleet of ships to Britain after many, many adventures. There were only a few giants living there at the time, and besides, the island had been promised him by a goddess, so he helped himself.
After that he had seen his kingdom, Brute was minded to build him a chief city, and following out his intention, he went round the whole circuit of the land in search of a fitting site. When he came to the river Thames, he walked along the banks till he found the very spot best suited to his purpose. He therefore founded his city there and called it New Troy, and by this name was it known for many ages thereafter, until at last, by corruption of the word, it came to be called Trinovantum.
About a thousand years and many mythological kings later, just before the arrival of the Romans, Trinovantum was due for renovation.
Unto him (Hely) were born three sons, Lud, Cassibelaunus and Nennius, whereof the eldest born, Lud, to wit, took the kingdom on his father's death. Thereafter, for that a right glorious city-builder was he, he renewed the walls of Trinovantum, and girdled it around with innumerable towers. He did likewise enjoin the citizens that they should build houses and stately fabrics therein, so as that no city in far-off kingdoms should contain fairer palaces. He himself was a man of war, and bountiful in giving of feasts. And, albeit that he had many cities in his dominion, yet this did he love above all other, and therein did he sojourn the greater part of the whole year, whence it was afterward named Kaerlud, and after that, by corruption of the name, Kaerlondon. In a later day, by the changing of the tongues, it was called London, and yet later, after the landing of the foreign folk that did subdue the country unto themselves, hath it been called Londres. Alter the death of Lud, his body was buried in the foresaid city nigh unto that gate, which even yet is called Porthlud in British, but in Saxon Ludgate.
The Truth about the founding of London:

Although there were people in Britain long before Geoffrey of Monmouth believed the Earth was even formed, London was founded by the Roman occupiers, soon after 54BC. They didn't do it because they wanted fancier palaces than the ones in any of the other places they'd conquered either. In fact, it seems they didn't systematically found a city at all (as they did in other places). They just strung a few pontoons across the river at the lowest possible crossing point, as a shortcut on their way to Colchester. There had been nothing much there before, but Londinium grew up in an organic way (as cities often do) around the north side of the bridge, with a smaller settlement on the south side, and eventually took over as the Romans' capital city in Britain.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Inspiration for urban fantasy writers: Brodsky and Utkin, Calvino

If you're in London, you can see Brodsky and Utkin's fantastical paper architecture in person at the Tate Modern. Otherwise, try on the internet, because the book of their work starts at $245!! These two artist/architects are part of a movement called Paper Architecture, buildings which exist only on paper. Which is pretty much what fantasy writers do as well. Their work really got me excited about the world-building aspect of urban fantasy all over again.

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is like a catalog of imaginary urbanism: cities on stilts, temporary cities, cities of earth... Did Marco Polo visit them on his travels or is he really telling Kublai Khan about fifty-five different versions of Venice? Who knows, but each one of the cities could be the basis of a whole novel. I was going to quote from one of them, but this little snippet of conversation seemed to go best with the Brodsky and Utkin above.
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
'But which is the stone that supports the bridge?' Kublai Khan asks.
'The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,' Marco answers, 'but by the line of the arch that they form.'
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: 'Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.'
Polo answers: 'Without stones there is no arch.'

Opt-in or opt-out on organ donation: the right thing to do should be the default thing to do

For a while now, I've been wanting to begin a series of posts I'm calling Magic Society, on the subject of magical thinking with regard to social issues (the politically correct term is non-evidence-based thinking). The name Magic Society is derived from the UK Conservative government's Big Society, a scheme to bring about adequate government of a large and complex system by 'integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism.'

My kick-off post is just what it says, a little reflection on how to optimize a tiny part of our society, saving lives in the process. 

Since organ donation has become so successful, we are all aware of the difficulties of long waiting lists for transplants. I just signed a petition to ask the UK to switch to an opt-out system, which means people would be considered willing donors unless they've specifically indicated they don't want to be. There are ongoing campaigns to bring about opt-out systems in the US and Australia as well.

Since it seems kind of obvious that organ donation is the right thing to do, I thought I would like it to be the default. The problem is that nobody wants to mistakenly take the organs of someone who would have opted out, but somehow failed to make their choice known (just as so many of us fail to make our preference for being donors known). It might seem we could address this with an extensive public information campaign, special liaisons with religious groups likely to opt out, and so on, but I think there would inevitably be accidents and oversights.

It seems to me that the real 'right thing to do' is to make sure everybody has a declared preference and that their choice is accessible to medical professionals at points where it will be needed. That would mean a single organization (probably the NHS) actively soliciting that choice from everyone in the country, double-checking it from time to time, and making sure it appears on identity documents most people are likely to have (or make it accessible by other means).

It's a system that would be easier to arrange in some countries than others. Unlike some state health systems, the NHS has rather given up on prevention and prefers to see most of us as little as possible, making it hard for them to collect information from us. Since the British are very resistant to carrying identification cards, we can't push for the relatively easy and inexpensive solution of getting this information displayed on them. We certainly don't want to rely on multiple organizations to hold this information: a driving license authority here, a medical insurance there, because of the risk of people giving different choices. The right default involves a single authority soliciting everyone's decision and allowing them to change it at will. This could be one of those situations where a lack of existing social infrastructure forces Britain to hover between two non-optimal solutions - meanwhile, people die who didn't need to ...

Monday 6 October 2014

How to make magic water

I've been meaning to write another long how-to post for weeks. Here are just a few of the many, many ways to make magic water. All of them are quite unnecessary, but they're worth ploughing through because there's a party political broadcast at the end.


Lots of people have used lots of different ways for sanctifying water, but it was Catholic holy water I got asked about so I'm focusing on that one. Back in the old days, Catholic holy water was accounted a substance with real magical powers, so potent that it was kept locked up to stop it falling into mischievous hands. One of the interesting things about the Catholic Church is that a lot of what they did was straight-forward magic and they wanted to retain a monopoly on this magic. Their tactics included: writing everything down in Latin so people couldn't understand it, claiming that good magic could only be performed by their qualified practitioners, and that all other uses of magic were bad and should be pursued and punished.

That's why it doesn't matter how well you know the ritual for making holy water, it won't work for you unless you're a Catholic priest. And priests don't get their powers just by knowing stuff and going through a ceremony. That's also magic, and can only be transmitted to them through the rite of ordination, in a chain of transmission that connects them all the way back to St Peter and to Christ himself. There is not supposed to be any way of 'stealing' this power, although you could go ahead and become a bad priest and then misuse it. But, if you're not a priest, first you need to get one, and once you've got one, this is what he'll do/would have done:
  1.  Exorcise all the dark forces out of some salt.
  2. Appeal to God to bless the salt and make it holy.
  3. Exorcise all the dark forces out of the water.
  4. Appeal to God to bless the water and make it holy.
  5. Add the salt to the water and stir thoroughly. 
The exorcisms very much take the form of magic spells, since they address the substance directly and assume the priest holds within himself the power to bring about the desired effect. Here is one for salt (see a complete but slightly different version of the rite from 1964):
    The consecration of water on the Theophany. Kustodiev
    For contrast, this is one of the rites of the
    Eastern Orthodox Church
    , which I didn't
    have time to write about.
    The Consecration of Water on the Theophany
    by Boris Kustodiev, via Wikimedia Commons.
    O salt, creature of God, I exorcise you by the living God, by the true God, by the holy God, by the God who ordered you to be poured into the water by Eliseo the Prophet so that its life-giving powers might be restored. I exorcise you so that you may become a means of salvation for believers, that you may bring health of soul and body to all who make use of you, and that you may put to flight and drive away from the places where you are sprinkled every apparition, villainy, and turn of devilish deceit, and every unclean spirit, adjured by Him Who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.

    The blessing of the salt or water to make it holy depends on God, but it's assumed that he'll honor the priest's requests as a matter of course. While reciting the prayer and the exorcism, the priest will also make the magically powerful sign of the cross over the substance. This is the prayer for water:
    O God, Who for the salvation of mankind has built Thy greatest mysteries on this substance, water, in Thy kindness hear our prayers and pour down the power of Thy blessing into this element, made ready for many kinds of purifications. May this, Thy creature, become an agent of divine grace in the service of Thy mysteries, to drive away evil spirits and dispel sickness, so that everything in the homes and other buildings of the faithful that is sprinkled with this water may be rid of all uncleanness and freed from every harm. Let no breath of infection, no disease-bearing air, remain in these places. May the wiles of the lurking Enemy prove of no avail. Let whatever might menace the safety and peace of those who live here be put to flight by the sprinkling of this water, so that the healthfulness, obtained by calling upon Thy holy name, may be made secure against all attack. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who lives and reigns with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
    After the Second Vatican Council, a lot of Catholic rites became less about actively changing the nature of substances and more about a symbolic getting in touch with the divine and letting God's power work through things and all that. The Council rather wanted to discourage those aspects of Catholicism which seemed to involve superstition, magic belief, and over-interest in supernatural entities such as ghosts, devils and even angels. Attention then shifted towards the question of whether holy water played a role in transmitting the more identifiable demons known as germs, rather than banishing the ineffable kind. Holy water is no longer locked up to keep it away from illicit practitioners of magic, but managed in such a way that it stays hygienic for users.

    Meanwhile, traditional Catholics, priests and lay-people alike, have complained that the new rites are too Protestant, too symbolic and basically, have had the actual magic ripped out of them (see complaints here and here). It turns out that if you want traditional Catholic holy water these days, that first step of finding a priest to make it for you may be quite a challenge.


    Homeopathy is a system of medicine based on magic water, developed in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann believed that diseases were magic as were the curative properties of his remedies and so was water. More or less. The one thing that can be said for Hahnemann is that in an age where medicines were generally unproven, sometimes poisonous and usually bad for the patient, he saved lives by using plain old placebo water. Let's just hope he boiled it first.

    Important disclaimer: homeopathy has no impact whatsoever on illnesses or discomforts beyond what can be achieved through psychological effects. For anything more serious than a common cold or feeling a bit down, see a medical doctor. This post is of satirical intent and should not be taken as medical advice. (Sheesh, the things you have to spell out for people...)

    Homeopathy is very, very complicated and requires long years of study, which is why its practitioners get to call themselves experts and charge lots of money for their fancy water. They have memorized a lot of stuff, which a lot of people before them have agreed to count as knowledge. For the benefit of the public, Magic for Skeptics offers an easy guide to DIY homeopathy, with an even easier quick-starter guide to follow.

    1. Psychological support: get a friend over and bribe them with beer to listen to you sympathetically while you talk about your symptoms. This is important: if you don't do this part right, you will lose out on the important psychological aspects of homeopathy. If you don't have a suitable friend, venting on the Internet may be better than nothing.

    2. Selecting a remedy: choose a substance which seems likely to cause the symptoms you're experiencing. In DIY homeopathy, please make absolutely sure to avoid the really poisonous substances, just in case (due to inexperience) you fail at the dilution stage of the process. Magic for skeptics recommends brandy as a good, traditional remedy for most purposes. There are few symptoms it can't produce under the right circumstances and if you don't like brandy, so much the better, because you won't be drinking any.

    3. Dilution: Hahnemann's big insight was that if you dilute a poison enough, you'll end up with a harmless liquid. This is the key to safe homeopathy. To begin your dilution, place 1(one) centilitre of brandy in a litre of water.

    4. Succussion: ignore what all the homeopathic textbooks have to say on succussion. It really doesn't matter one bit how you do it, trust me on this, just give the stuff a good shake.

    5. Repeat repeatedly: take one centilitre from your water and brandy mixture and add it to another litre of water, then shake again.  Repeat this whole process 12 times altogether. You will now have a solution of brandy which is quite unlikely to contain any brandy at all.

    6. Dosage: drink one teaspoonful of your dissolved brandy and believe. The believing part is very important, failure to do this interferes with the placebo effect of the remedy.

    Here is the shorter (and recommended) version:

    1. Psychological support: get a friend over and bribe them with beer to listen to you sympathetically while you talk about your symptoms.

    2. Dosage: drink either one large glass of water or one small glass of brandy according to choice and believe.

    This shorter version of the brandy method was practiced with great success by my grandfather throughout his life, so it must be true, right? So much for regaining our health, now we'd like to keep it indefinitely... wouldn't we? Well, see below.


    There are many natural sources of magical water around the world: Lourdes, the Ganges, and so on. One which has appeared in European culture for millenia is the Fountain of Youth, which has water which is sort of like botox that actually works. At least, it would if it could be located. The Fountain of Youth, as you might imagine, is always somewhere else, or Europeans would have stumbled into it already. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus reported that Cambyses of Persia, having decided to extend his empire, sent the Ichthyophagi ('fish-eaters' from the island of Elephantine, now in Southern Egypt?) to spy out the land of the 'Ethiopians' (possibly inhabitants of what is now Sudan?) The Ethiopian king indicated to them that he didn't plan to get conquered any time soon, although, in the interesting cultural exchange that followed, he revealed the source of his people's long life:
    The Icthyophagi then in their turn questioned the king concerning the term of life, and diet of his people, and were told that most of them lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age- they ate boiled flesh, and had for their drink nothing but milk. When the Icthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil- and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.
    You can never tell with this kind of 'traveler's tale' whether it was based on a report of local beliefs or was merely a promotion of someone's conquest plans, the sort of thing that might encourage foot-soldiers to cross deserts to fight random people.

    Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 007
    Typical European Fountain of Youth iconography, in this case by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546,
    via Wikimedia Commons

    By the 14th century, the search had shifted to India, sort of. Actually what happened is that physician and fan of real-life travel literature, John the Bearded of Liege, Belgium, wrote a travel fantasy, passing himself off as traveler extraordinaire Sir John Mandeville of St Albans, England. He went out of his way to include every piece of late medieval clickbait imaginable, with the result that he became incredibly popular and nobody bothered much about what was true and what wasn't. He sets his experiences with the Fountain of Youth near Polombe (modern day Kollam, Southern India):
    Also toward the head of that forest is the city of Polombe. And above the city is a great mountain that also is clept Polombe. And of that mount the city hath his name. And at the foot of that mount is a fair well and a great, that hath odour and savour of all spices. And at every hour of the day he changeth his odour and his savour diversely. And whoso drinketh three times fasting of that water of that well he is whole of all manner sickness that he hath. And they that dwell there and drink often of that well they never have sickness; and they seem always young. I have drunken thereof three or four sithes, and yet, methinketh, I fare the better. Some men clepe it the well of youth. For they that often drink thereof seem always young-like, and live without sickness. And men say, that that well cometh out of Paradise, and therefore it is so virtuous.
    By the early 16th century, it had been definitively established that the Fountain of Youth was in the Americas. Europeans knew this for sure, because the indigenous people of the Caribbean knew all about it, locating it to the north in an island called Bimini. Unfortunately, they too had been unable to find it. It's not at all certain that anyone was trying all that hard, so yet again the task of making up a half-decent story was left to those who stayed at home. Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, an early historian of Spanish conquests wrote:
    Among the islands on the north side of Hispaniola there is one about 325 leagues distant, as they say which have searched the same, in the which is a continual spring of running water, of such marvellous virtue that the water thereof being drunk (perhaps with some diet) maketh olde men young again. And here I must make protestation to your holiness not to think this to be said lightly or rashly, for they have so spread this rumor for a truth throughout all the court, that not only all the people, but many of them whom wisdom or fortune hath divided from the common sort, think it to be true. 
    That would explain why everyone was rushing over to the Americas to seek their fortune. Later on, 'historians' attributed the most intensive search to Juan Ponce de Leon, actual European discoverer of Florida, beginning considerably after his death to be on the safe side:
    Having overhauled the vessels, it appearing to Juan Ponce that he had labored much, he resolved, although against his will, to send some one to examine the island of Bimini; for he wished to do it himself, because of the account he had of the wealth of this island, and especially of that particular spring so the Indians said that restores men from aged men to youths, the which he had not been able to find, by reason of shoals and currents and contrary weather. He sent then, as captain of the ship, Juan Perez de Ortubia, and as pilot Anton de Alaminos. They carried two Indians for pilots through the shoals, because they are so many that one proceeds with much danger because of them. This ship departed on the 17th [27th?] of September, and Juan Ponce the next day for his voyage. And in twenty-one days he arrived within sight of San Juan and went to make harbor in the bay of Puerto Rico; where, after having found Bimini, although not the spring, the other ship arrived with the account that it was a large island, cool, and with many springs and woodlands. The discovery by Juan Ponce of La Florida so ended, without knowledge that it was the mainland; nor for some years thereafter was that assurance obtained.
    By the 21st century it had become almost certain that the Fountain of Youth was located on a distant exo-planet, yet to be discovered.


    In reality, it seems to me we have more than enough problems with water, without investing ourselves in the production or discovery of kinds that don't exist. Getting clean drinking water, getting enough water, saving and storing it, getting it where it needs to be, and away from where it doesn't need to be, these are still massive problems for a lot of the world's population, perhaps all of us at times. If the time, money and effort that gets poured into gaining expertise in various forms of 'magic' water was spent on real water infrastructure and management issues, would it be enough? It would certainly leave us a lot better off, but there's a problem with this plan. Stuff that actually works just isn't magic enough, apparently.

    Sunday 5 October 2014

    Remedial Christian Studies

    According to my daughter, her Religious Studies teacher told her there are two approaches to animal rights in Christianity. One group believes we should be kind to animals because God went to the trouble of getting them onto Noah's Ark, thus saving them from his own flood. The other group believes we can do what we like with animals because God created us first!!!!!

    Really, when my daughter's time is being consumed by this subject within the context of a public school, I think I'm in my rights to expect the teaching to be accurate. Everyone should know, especially a Religious Studies teacher, that the order of creation in the Bible is 1) light, 2) the heavens, 3) earth, which God commanded to produce plants by itself, 4) the sun and moon, 5) animals who live in water and fly, 6) land animals, followed by man and woman who come last.

    The piece of Christian belief the teacher is probably trying to refer to is based on what God said to the humans after he made them, apparently assigning them dominion (authority) over living things.
    And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
    Some Christians interpret this as an absolute gift which humans can dispose of as they please, up to and including destroying living species, let alone treating animals in whatever way suits them. Other Christians interpret it more as a stewardship, granting humans the management of living things but with the assumption that mis-management, destruction and cruelty are not likely to be what God had in mind.

    It actually ties in quite nicely with the spells for stopping bees from swarming which I posted about earlier this week. The second spell/prayer, from the more Christianized Middle Ages, basically reminds the rebellious bees 'God said you should do what I told you!'

    Friday 3 October 2014

    Banksy's Birds

    Subtitled, another fine failure at anti-racist art!

    It seems to be open season on 'racist' art in Britain these days. Brett Bailey's Exhibit B didn't make it to opening night at the Barbican but triggered an outpouring of debate on whether it would or would not have been racist if it had. My views on that one are here.

    Now we have Banksy, who goes around painting very expensive graffiti on walls, hitting Clacton-on-Sea with the mega-million buck masterpiece shown below. Clacton could have sold it to buy themselves a new sea wall, but instead it seems they have destroyed it because a member of the public complained it was 'racist and offensive'.

    Jonathan Jones at the Guardian isn't buying this story. He thinks Banksy's piece is 'quite plainly an eloquent attack on racism'. Since he suspects the good people of Clacton-on-Sea of significant ingrained racism due to the fact that a UKipper is about to stand for election there, he believes the only reason they would tear the mural down is because 'it hits too close to home' and makes them feel squirmy.

    By the way, I think we might be talking about xenophobia here rather than racism, but since the former seems to be considered acceptable by so many, I'm choosing to cynically believe we're using the word 'racism' to try to trigger appropriate responses in people. Just like Banksy really, but was his painting likely to work?

    Let's imgaine a member of the public completely unfamiliar with Banksy and his work, yet familiar enough with the anti-immigration political discourses going on in his or her town, and disapproving on them. Will it really be so obvious to them that the art work is on their side?

    I'm not so sure about that. What Jones is overlooking is that the only eloquent things in the painting are the racist pigeons and what they're saying is exactly what the racist politicians and their supporters in the same environment are saying. How can the piece be effectively anti-racist when it offers no counter-arguments, no condemnations, but just sits there reinforcing the same old local racist messages? How can it be effectively anti-racist if it's only method (apparently) is to hope its viewers find the swallow small and sweet enough to start feeling sorry for it?

    Now imagine a resident of Clacton-on-Sea who knows nothing about Banksy but is vehemently anti-immigration. They regularly hand out messages like those on the placards with no sense of shame whatsoever. They see no benefits or attractions in the smallness or sweetness of swallows in Britain. Does a 'confrontation' with this painting on a wall actually give them a communication about how others perceive them and why they should stop? Or does it confirm them in their actions? It seems to me the only really convincingly negative thing about the pigeons is the message on their placards but to see that you have to be the type to perceive those messages negatively!

    Now imagine you're an immigrant in sunny Clacton-on-Sea. I think the message the painting conveys is, at best, that you'd better just sit tight while other people decide whether you're small and sweet enough to be allowed to stick around. At worse, it's just a reminder of a message you may already have heard: 'There's some big fat pigeons around here who don't want you!'

    Sorry Jonathan Jones, I think you and I only know this piece is 'plainly anti-racist' because we know who Banksy is and we move in circles where the messages on the placards meet with open disapproval.

    I'm sure anti-racist art can do better than this, so I'm now officially on the lookout for excellent pieces. Anyone want to send me one for review?

    You may also be interested in:
    Why I think Brett Bailey's Exhibit B is not a good idea
    The misuse of a work of art in promoting murderous witch-hunts in Nigeria

    Thursday 2 October 2014

    In which Pastor Ezeugwu slanders an angel, though this is the least of his sins

    This story should start in the proper place, with a rather beautiful artwork by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. It's a fibreglass angel fallen to the ground, shown at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2009, though there have been other versions in other places:

    Not very Nigerian looking, not very female looking and not very witchy, I think you'll agree. Pastor I.C. Ezeugwu, has a whole different angle on the thing, quite literally.

    Frame it so the face is hidden, darken the skin a bit, and write a little story underneath it, and lo and behold, you have a dead Nigerian witch on your hands. Pastor Ezeugwu provides the little story (emphases mine):
    On the eve of the crusade, I had a revelation where three elderly women came to me and told me to cancel the crusade. On the morning of the crusade, I held a brief counselling session. An elderly woman who came for counselling on a white robe told me that "her members don't want me to hold the crusade". That was what her interpreter told me as she couldn’t speak English. I asked why? She said because they rule the land. I told her interpreter to tell her that they don't rule the land, JESUS rules the land. She said they'll kill me and I told her I'll kill them first hence the crusade was titled "Operation Kill the Witches". The crusade was meant to hold for 4 days but later lasted for 7 days as a result of the testimonies the people were sharing.

    Eight days after I went back to my base, I received a telegram from the leader of the organising committee informing me that the head of the witches was dead after suffering a partial stroke for 2 days.
    Note the little details, the white robe and the allusion to the death of the 'head witch' intended to help the inattentive link the story with the picture without going quite so far as to assert they are one and the same. I won't tell you to note the fact that this believer in Jesus is going around threatening elderly ladies with murder, I'll trust you to notice that for yourselves.

    This debunking of this piece of maliciousness was brought to us by Richard Bartholomew who apparently heard about the whole thing from Leo Igwe, and passed it on to Ophelia Benson, from whom it reached me. It's a pretty pathetic and dangerous scam. I mean come on, if you want to believe in witches, believe in this, by the same artists:

    That is an amazing piece of art I would have loved to have seen. And this is only a tiny part of it. It's called Dear and was shown at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris.

    Other stories about malicious fabrication of supernatural incidents:

    British military intelligence lie about black magic among Irish paramilitary organisations. 

    Didgeridoo and orchestra: Sean O'Boyle's River Symphony and more

    I really, genuinely, couldn't figure out what kind of music I wanted to listen to today, then I found this:

    William Barton on the didgeridoo with the Australia Youth Orchestra. After a bit of poking around I'm pretty sure this piece is Concerto for Didgeridoo, composed by Australian Sean O'Boyle. He also did River Symphony which is if anything even more amazing. Or to put it another way, overwhelmingly brilliant.

    Letting your work get uploaded to YouTube isn't a waste of time. I'm so in love with this, it's going on my Christmas list, even if it means I have to have a physical CD when I would much prefer an MP3.

    There is more. Here are two of my favorite instruments together, didgeridoo and violoncello. I'm in such ecstasies, you'll have to excuse me from actually finding out what I'm listening to.


    Wednesday 1 October 2014

    How to keep honey bees from swarming by magic

    I'm not sure how many old European magic spells were ever written down, but prominent among the survivors are a couple for controlling our one of our few domesticated insects, the honey bee.

    My favorite bee book (French only)
    by Eric Tourneret
    I think it's possible that there are people today who don't really know what a bee swarm is, or why it matters. Swarming is how a honeybee colony reproduces. It's a special event during which the queen, rather unusually, lays fertile female eggs which will develop into new queens. Having done so, she will abandon the old colony herself, taking more than half her workers with her, but leaving her daughter with an established infrastructure. For bee-keepers, uncontrolled swarming is a thing to be avoided at all costs. Bees left to their own devices will leave them with a reduced hive of unproductive bees struggling to re-establish itself and the loss of more than half their 'livestock' into the wilds.There are few things more beautiful than a wild honeybee hive (see left), but try telling that to bee-keepers and said hive's human neighbours! I suppose it's true that if you do a Google image search for bee swam pictures, swarms do seem to get into some rather anti-social places.

    Our ancestors were obviously more than willing to resort to begging, threatening and pleading to prevent this. I find the Old English of this spell so beautiful, I had to do my own translation to capture the rhythm of the exhortation. There are more linguistically accurate translations here and here.

    Sitte ge, sīgewīf,
    sīgað tō eorðan,
    næfre ge wilde

    tō wuda fleogan,
    beō ge swā gemindige,

    mīnes gōdes,
    swā bið manna gehwilc,
    metes and ēðeles.

    Be still, shield-maidens,
    stay earth-bound,
    don't fly off wildly,
    through the forests,
    but instead think you kindly,
    on my welfare,
    as all mankind thinks,
    of hearth and home.

    The Lorsch Bee Blessing is formatted more like a prayer or invocation, but it was meant for the same purpose. It sounds a lot more fraught to modern ears.

    Kirst, imbi ist hûcze
    Nû fliuc dû, vihu mînaz, hera

    Fridu frôno in munt godes
    gisunt heim zi comonne
    Sizi, sizi bîna
    Inbôt dir sancte Maria
    Hurolob ni habe dû
    Zi holce ni flûc dû
    Noh dû mir nindrinnês
    Noh dû mir nintuuinnêst
    Sizi vilu stillo
    Uuirki godes uuillon
    Christ, the bee swarm is out here!
    Now fly, you my animals, come.
    In the Lord's peace, in God's protection,
    come home in good health.
    Sit, sit bees.
    The command to you from the Holy Mary.
    You have no vacation;
    Don't fly into the woods;
    Neither should you slip away from me.
    Nor escape from me.
    Sit completely still.
    Do God's will.

    Or, as my daughter put it: 'BEES! Stop what you're doing and work for me!'

    Unfortunately, it was eventually discovered that honey bees are largely impervious to human poetics.The way to deal with swarming bees is, as usual, by knowing stuff.

    27-alimenti, miele, Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense 4182..jpg

    Traditional Hives via Wikimedia Commons.

    What the swarm is looking for a new hive. You could have the best new hiving spot in the district all ready for them and hope they pick it, but that's kind of primitive. To be really modern, you would sprinkle alluring bee pheromone all over it. You can physically capture the swarm and get them into your new hive. There are lots of ways of doing this, from the primitive to the high-tech, provided you know them. You can clip the queen's wings to prevent her flying, making sure the attempted swarm never gets far from the original hive. This is the only method which is actually considered desirable, as a stop-gap measure.


    This relies on knowing why bees do what they do. If a colony has grown past a certain population density, has plentiful supplies of food and future bees, and a sufficiently mature queen, it will quite likely prepare to swarm. Bees want to swarm. It's how they reproduce. But if you can trick them into thinking population density is low, and resources uncertain, they may defer reproduction until times look better. Alternatively, you can use 'controlled swarming' techniques, such as permanently or temporarily splitting the colony, or creating a mini-colony around the old queen - a kind of mini-swarm. Some techniques rely explicitly on making the bees think they have swarmed when in fact, they've returned to their old hive. Deciding what to do with the cells containing new queens is a secondary issue - their fate will no longer have an impact on a colony's decision to swarm.

    That's the basic theory and the reason the practice is complicated is that there are several ways of doing all of these things, but the response of the bees is variable and no method is absolutely reliable. Or perhaps we still don't know enough stuff.

    Tuesday 30 September 2014

    International Blasphemy Rights Day

    Oh, dear, nearly too late for International Blasphemy Rights Day. Let's see if I can squeeze it in. This is not a blaspheme, as such, but a story about why you don't want to go there, religious people.

    Some years ago, I thought my daughter should be educated regarding the contents of the Bible, and I even thought I might read her a little King James. I'd heard it was good literature, although it was the first Bible I ever read, and I never remembered it quite like that. Nevertheless, I took the book down and did that thing religious people sometimes do: I let it fall open at a random page and looked to see what I had drawn.

    There before we was a story about Moses and Aaron telling their sister Miriam to shut her mouth because she was a woman. In a literary way, of course.

    I decided then and there, that my kid was getting the toned down version and I certainly wasn't going to have her plough through the various obscenities and disgraces to civilization she would find in that book.

    This is the thing, dear religious people. Your book is really, deeply and horribly offensive to the beliefs and values of other people, but it is tolerated, because freedom of speech is tolerated.

    Now, it's going to be October in about one minute, here we go.

    'I'll believe in evolution when I see a cat turn into a dog'

    Well, here you are then.

    This post is dedicated to the spotted hyena, the most liminal mammal alive, just because I'm into liminality at the moment. Hyenas have often been compared to wild dogs, wolves, jackals and other members of the canine family. Everyone agrees they kind of look and behave like dogs, but they're actually more closely related to cats. They belong in a taxonomic sub-order with the pretty name of feliformia which includes hyenas, cats, civets and mongooses.

    Hyena Standoff.jpg
    "Hyena Standoff" by Maureen Lunn - Hyena StandoffUploaded by Mariomassone. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    But spotted hyenas don't stop there. They blow our minds still further by being full-on gender-benders at least if they're female. Not only is their clitoris enlarged into what looks like a penis, they even have a fake scrotum. Copulation is a bit fiddly for them, birth even more so, since they have to do all that stuff via the long pseudo-penis. They do pay a price for it, with a rather high maternal mortality and first pups who are more likely to die than not. Even if two pups survive birth, one sibling will often kill the other. On the other hand, surviving female pups of the most masculinized (and agressive) females rise to the top of the group hierarchy, get the most mating rights, generally boss everyone around and have lots of masculinized female pups in their turn. Males tend to do better in the mating market by behaving submissively.

    Humans have often responded to this boundary-breaking by despising hyenas. Many African societies have not thought highly of them, European big game hunters found them too ugly to bother with (good survival trait there!). Not many people like their habit of eating anything they can kill or find, starting with human corpses. Being obvious 'hermaphrodites' makes matters worse, but at least no one paid much attention to the cat/dog thing until recently. With all that negativity, it's nice to find one positive appraisal:
    Among the Korè cult of the Bambara people in Mali, the belief that spotted hyenas are hermaphrodites appears as an ideal in-between in the ritual domain. The role of the spotted hyena mask in their rituals is often to turn the neophyte into a complete moral being by integrating his male principles with femininity.
    'His' male principles, huh? Could it be that being a 'complete moral being' is a guy thing with the Bambara people? Since I have no clue, I'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt for now. And that would be about enough of hyenas, except the Tanzanian ones are irresistible.
    In the culture of the Mbugwe in Tanzania, the spotted hyena is linked to witchcraft. According to Mbugwe folklore, every witch possesses one or more hyenas, which are referred to as "night cattle" and are branded with an invisible mark. It is said that all hyenas are owned by witches, and that truly wild hyenas are non-existent. Lactating female spotted hyenas are said to be milked by their owners every night to make hyena butter, and are further used as mounts. When a witch acquires a hyena mount, he rides it to distant lands in order to bewitch victims and return safely home before morning.

    You might be interested in:
    How witchcraft belief in contemporary Africa is not nearly as fun as that sounds
    The Norse god Loki and liminality of various kinds

    Monday 29 September 2014

    Loki breaks

    It's really nice when books you're reading come through and give you what you need when you need it. Over here, we are suffering from outbreaks of institutional xenophobia (again), such that it's hard to find much magic in life. But, I started reading Joanne Harris's Gospel of Loki with my daughter again, and here is what it delivered:
    Nine little stitches, that's all it took for me to suddenly realize the truth: that whatever I did, whatever I risked, however much I tried to fit in, I would never be one of them. I would never have a hall, or earn the respect I so clearly deserved. I would never be a god; only ever a dog on a chain. Oh, I might be of use to them now and then, but as soon as the current crisis was done, it would be back to the kennel for Your Humble Narrator, and without as much as a biscuit.

    I'm telling you this so you'll understand why I did the things I did. I think you'll agree I had no choice; it was the only way I could retain the little self-respect I had. There's such purity in revenge, unlike those other emotions I'd had to endure in Odin's world. Envy, hatred, sorrow, fear, remorse, humiliation - all of them messy and painful and quite spectacularly pointless - but now as I discovered revenge, it was almost like being home again.

    Home. See how they corrupted me? This time, with nostalgia, that most toxic of their emotions. And perhaps with some self-pity as well, as I started to think of all the things I'd given up to join them: my primal Aspect; my place with Surt; my Chaotic Incarnation. Not that Surt would have understood of cared for my belated remorse - that too was the product of their pernicious influence. Hence my hunger for revenge, not because I expected a reconciliation with Chaos - not then - but because the urge to destroy was really all I had left.
    Well, quite. Now I'm done letting off vicarious steam, I'll admit that I don't think much of Loki's choices even though I get them. It can be a fine line between justice and revenge, given that his complaints are broadly accurate, but someone who fails to recognize its existence is broken. In narratively interesting ways, if they're Loki. It's a brilliant book, by the way, and lots of it is also very amusing. It's another exploration of Loki's status as a liminal being. I suppose a character could be super-liminally interesting by exploring that boundary between revenge and justice, but that's wasn't Loki and Joanne Harris's book adheres pretty closely to the original mythology.

    You might also be interested in:

    Thor and Gender
    Gender transgression, magic and warfare in Nordic societies

    An angel and the head of a pin

    I wrote this on my weekend break, in the north-east of England where it tends to the sunnier, population and traffic levels are down to the kind of thing I was used to in rural France and I have time to appreciate art.

    I saw the Angel of the North for the first time today. It's right on the A1, but somehow, whenever I've come up this way since it's been in place, I've used public transport. It's a very moving statue, no wonder so many people love it. Something about its proportions challenges the camera (though not the eye) but I like it like this, with its wing spread over a group of people:

    The angel is really special, but I was thinking, as I drove up, why an angel? Its creator, Anthony Gormley, said this:
    Why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The Angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears.

    This is really special as well. Willard Wigan was on Operation Stonehenge, giving his expert opinion on how (or who? children?) might have been making minuscule bronze age gold ornaments found near Stonehenge. What Wigan does in the world or miniature ornaments is just... WOW! although he's no longer a minor and uses a very fancy microscope.

    It's not so much the meaning of the figures he makes which is exceptional, its the ostentatious display of virtuoso craftsmanship that's such an incredibly human thing to do. I find both these pieces of art incredibly moving in their own way, but coming at me so close together like that, the contrast between them, the monumental and the miniature affected me very much as well and really got me thinking about the monumental and the miniature in writing.

    In the end I decided to spare the world my philosophical cogitations on the subject and limit myself to informing you that I've decided to indulge in a little twitterature, while I finish writing a six-part fantasy series which has life, the universe and everything as its underlying themes. Like this, see:
    Here is the history of the universe, the course of history, a human life, a life event, observed in the reflection of a petal in a dewdrop.

    Friday 19 September 2014

    Neolithic hairstyles and fashions

    It's odd how prehistoric people are all too often presented to us in modern-day reconstructions like those in the frankly brilliant Operation Stonehenge. I must admit it, the thing which stretches my skeptical credibility to the uttermost is being asked to believe that the builders of Stonehenge, with their priests, geometers and astronomers, their 'architect, surveyor and builder', their wide-ranging trade routes and shipping capabilities, these sophisticated people, were apparently not capable of combing their hair, washing their faces, or even smartening up their leather loincloths by trimming the edges and adding ornamentation.

    I know it's impossible to guess their 'fashion sense' when we have so little evidence for its details, but they had one. As far as I know, there has been no recorded human society in which people did not style their hair and ornament themselves. And these were people with a complex and sophisticated social structure.

    It's odd. We live so much surrounded by their remains there are times you could think they were still with us. And then you realize how much we're having to make up - or avoid making up - by letting them appear as stereotypical primitives of a kind which our species doesn't turn out, practically by definition.